I got this month’s book from the “100 Best Books of the Decade – So Far” list. Y’all know me. I’m a sucker for book lists and feel the need to read every book on them, especially if the list is “Best of” or “Greatest Ever.” Of course, being me, I typed up the list in Excel and then highlighted the books I have already read. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I have only read 14 of them. So, I immediately reserved a few books on the list at my library, and this was the first book that came in. And that book is “Just Kids” by Patti Smith (the punk rock Patti Smith, not the 80’s band Scandal lead singer Patty Smyth. Huge difference).
As usual, I didn’t do any kind of research on this book before I started it. Literally, all I knew was that Patti Smith wrote it. I assumed it has something to do with her roots in rock and roll, but I wasn’t sure. The book starts out with her childhood. You notice right away that Smith is a beautiful writer. Not in the superfluous, “I’m sticking lots of long words in this paragraph to describe this scene” style of writing that many authors have, but in a very tasteful, poetic way. Which makes sense because she started out a poet.
Since I assumed this book was solely about Smith, I got a little confused when she kept mentioning “Robert.” Who was Robert? A brother? Am I supposed to know who Robert is? Ummm – yes. A quick google search of “Patti Smith” brought up controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who was Smith’s, for lack of a better term, soul mate. Their relationship is pretty legendary in artistic circles and I had no clue. Again, with the shame...
The story really starts to take hold when Smith moves to New York, meets Robert, and starts living in the Chelsea Hotel. The hotel, and those who lived there, fascinated me, and I’m now obsessed with reading the everything ever written about the Chelsea Hotel. If you are unaware, the owner of the Chelsea Hotel would use an artist’s portfolio as a down payment for a room if he thought you had talent. As a result, the hotel became a haven for struggling artists, which attracted other artists. Smith mentioned walking into an accompanying restaurant and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were there. This is going to sound a little weird, but it just seemed like such a legitimate time to be an artist or musician. I guess I’m a little burnt out of the music industry right now with so much manufactured crap out there these days. Reading about musicians who turn down record deals because they care about their art was refreshing. Granted, they were poor as dirt, so I suppose you have to take that into consideration.
While the struggle for Patti and Robert to make it as artists is what moves the book forward, the heart of the story is their relationship. You need to read the book to truly appreciate the depth of their connection. And I highly recommend you do, especially if you have an interest rock, photography and the arts in the late 1960's, but also because Smith’s writing is so damn beautiful you’ll want to cry.