Review by Jennifer Spiegel
Who isn’t listening to audiobooks these days? I was late, as I am to many trends, as I was with Patti Smith. I think I only “discovered” her in the nineties. Actually, I know exactly when and where I was. The nineties, the East Village, a used record shop (are they still there?) Me, trying, failing, to be cool. I bought Patti Smith’s Gone Again. Hooked, ready for Horses.
I finally listened to Just Kids, which is narrated by Smith. It’s extraordinary. Though the book focuses on her relationship with Artist Robert Mapplethorpe (who, admittedly, interests me considerably less), it was Smith who lulled me with her prose. When poets commit to narrative, sometimes amazing things happen.
And since it looks like the Prez-elect has declared War on the Arts, this book—already poignant to me—became, suddenly, culturally poignant. How is a life in Art lived? What does it mean to be an Artist?
This book is really, truly the portrait of an artist as a young woman. It feels like the beginnings to me, like the way it goes for those with the compulsion to pursue the Crazy of Art. There’s more to it, and you can bet I’ll be listening to M Train (listening because it’s also narrated by Smith).
Mapplethorpe died young. At 1989, he died of AIDS at the age of forty-two. He got famous, and—this was something I didn’t love, though Smith only speaks lovingly of him—his ultimate aim in the Arts seemed to be wealth and notoriety.
But Smith. Artist at Large. What happens to a young woman?
Would you believe that she was taking a bus to New York City, leaving behind her family and factory jobs, having had a child which she gave up for adoption and an awareness of some kind of artistic compulsion, and she didn’t have enough money to pay the bus fare, so it was then that she found a white purse—on top, I think, of the pay phone—with $32.00 in it? She took the money, left the purse, and got on the bus—the rest is history.
She’s utterly likeable, speaking of her cigarette-smoking mom standing over her when she said her nighttime prayers, recounting her discovery of literature and art—seeing Picasso’s work in Philadelphia, telling us about the time she stole a skating pin. She refers to Jim Morrison as a “West Coast St. Sebastian,” noting that she looked upon him—when she saw him live—with an admixture of disdain and admiration. He possessed both a sense of self-loathing and supreme confidence; she also thought that she, too, could do this. She prayed to save Robert Mapplethorpe’s soul; he prayed to sell his soul to the devil (this is paraphrased). The book name-drops without meaning to name-drop: Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan.
And the New York of it! They, like, really lived in the Chelsea hotel (which only has one-hundred rooms?). She describes it as being like a dollhouse in the Twilight Zone. But so much of New York is brought to life here: Coney Island, Andy Warhol’s clubs, diners, donut shops, Brooklyn apartments, flea bag hotels. Parts of Paris too.
Did you know that Smith loved the Rolling Stones? She cut her hair like Keith Richards, saying goodbye to her folk era-do, and someone asked her if she were androgynous. She thought it meant ugly and beautiful at the same time. So she said yes. Soon after, she began writing song lyrics
Someone told her: You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian, what do you do?
Mapplethorpe said to her, “Patty, you got famous before me.”
The fame was secondary to the Art of it. She’s a wonder.
And if we’re really at war, stand by the poets.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.