If you’re like me and you came of age reading about the Beats, the sixties culture they influenced, and the special magic of New York City, you really need to read Just Kids, by Patti Smith. I’m embarrassed to say that I only just read it a few weeks ago, even though it came out in 2010 . . . but that personal shame can’t keep me quiet about how amazing the story is.
There’s a reason it won the National Book Award. And the reason is simple: because Patti Smith is a true artist. She’s an artist in every sense of the word. Most of us know her as a rock star . . . but really, she’s so much more than that. She’s a writer, both a journalist and a literary figure at the same time. She’s a visual artist, in pencil and in paint. She’s a designer–clothes, collage, even in setting up the rooms where she and Robert Mapplethorpe lived and worked in New York City.
There’s so many reasons why this memoir of her early life as a quite literal starving artist in NYC is compelling. I’ll just give you two and then I’ll shut up about it, so you can go out and get a copy for yourself. The first is–again, especially if you grew up, like I did, reading all about Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsburg and John Clellon Holmes and them–she gives a detailed, sober account of bohemian culture in New York City in the sixties. Emphasis on sober. You can believe what Patti’s telling you in this story because she is not only sober, but she is a trained writer, an observer, and furthermore she is a natural artist in the tradition of not just the Beats, but the painters and thinkers and writers who inspired them.
Patti takes you into the Chelsea hotel, where she and Robert, her best friend and artistic soulmate, lived. When musicians like Hendrix and Janice Joplin, even William Burroughs, were hanging out and holding court at the Chelsea and the bar off its lobby, Patti and Robert had a room there. They were right in the thick of it, and they weren’t tourists. When Andy Warhol and his gang were hanging out in the back room at Max’s Kansas City, Patti and Robert worked their way back there too. Patti reports in beautiful prose on all this stuff. Really, it’s like you’re right there with her.
The memoir is really about friendship. Patti tells how Robert, dying of AIDS, asks her to write the story of their early lives, and how she promises to do so. The book is a promise kept to a friend who is no longer alive but far from dead.
And that’s beautiful enough as it is. But it’s Patti’s words, the soulful and careful way she tells the story of her artists’ journey in the years leading up to Horses, her 1974 debut that many people consider the first punk rock record ever made, that burrow deep inside you. She’s a true American artist, not just an equal of the Beats, and Dylan, and Warhol and Lou Reed, but of giants like Rimbaud . . . another one of her literary cousins she writes beautifully about.
Above all, the most beautiful thing about Just Kids is it shows you Patti Smith in her most formative years, and it shows you how she is a part of an artistic tradition that is as old and steady as the tides and the pull of the moon. It makes you long to be there . . . but not really, because thanks to her writing, you are there.