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Book: Just Kids

February 10, 2011

OK. I’m going to write this review, but my opinion can be summed up in just two words: READ THIS.

Oh, I loved this book. I loved it to bits. I cried so much at the end that the pages are literally tear-stained. I almost never buy non-reference books any more but I may have to buy this book, just because I want to have this tender, loving, devastating memoir in the bookcase. So powerfully yet simply told, this picture of a deep kindred friendship and love was one of the most moving books I have read in a long time. It was also very entertaining, informative, beautiful and obviously written out of sheer love and affection for a very dear friend. How can you not be moved by that?

In the late 1960s, at the tender age of 20, young Patti Smith scrapes together bus fare to head to Brooklyn. She literally finds the last bits of the fare in the phone booth at the bus station. Once there, she couch-surfs and spends nights in the park, scraping together bits of money as she finds it, eating when her friends have something to spare, most often going hungry. During this period of initial homelessness, she meets a boy with wild curly hair, who says his name is Bob. She thinks he’s more like a Robert, and in each other, they recognize a deep kindred spirit. The two of them form an almost-immediate bond and together they face the streets of New York as homeless, broke, ambitious young artists, rich in one another’s love and friendship, but that’s about it in terms of worldly wealth. Starving artists, indeed.

Patti Smith does an amazing job of telling this story in an almost fairy-tale way: although extremely straightforward and unembellished, she throws in small sparkling sentences every now and again which elevate the memoir into something more. These kids — broke, sick, starving — are about the change the world, but they don’t know it yet. All they know is that they love each other deeply, they love Art, they love New York, and they are very hungry. Sometimes all they can scrape together is enough money to share a single hot dog or split a cheese-and-mustard sandwich.

On one level, this is a fascinating portrait of a particular period in time in New York, when starving artists could still trade art for rent at the Chelsea Hotel, when nobody had any money and yet they could still be in the middle of the Warhol scene, before punk, before photography was viewed as fine art, before everybody started dying from drug overdoses, and certainly before the catastrophic effects of AIDS. On this level alone, the book is worth reading if you have any interest at all in rock music or modern art.

But for me, the deeper story, the story between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, was the real beauty of the book. Told so tenderly, as they moved from young lovers masquerading to be married for his parents’ sake, to Robert’s growing awareness of his own sexuality, to their navigating the inevitable split as he explores this new world and she strives to find her voice as an artist, to their unbreakable bond as the closest of friends and muses. They have a true understanding of one another, and the way they look out for each other in their gritty surroundings is so very sweet and dear.

Some favorite moments:

When Patti and Robert move into their first rooms together. How they create a sanctuary in the squalor of dirty, seedy downtown New York. Their extreme poverty and creative survival.

Their desperate move to the Chelsea, and the colorful denizens there. I was envious of the creative community that grew up all around them — incredibly fun voyeuristic reading here. Lunch with William Burroughs whenever you caught him around? Being picked up by Allen Ginsberg (who mistook her for a very pretty boy)? To be a fly on the walls of the Chelsea… most of all I love how nobody had any money, not even the ‘successful’ artists living there. Somehow that makes it seem more accessible. Nobody needed much. Patti and Robert didn’t even take a ride in a car together (except for a taxi) until they’d been friends for 3 years or so. They lived in a room. One room. With a bathroom down the hall. She doesn’t over-romanticize the problems this created, but she also clearly articulates the clarity that comes with having very few possessions and the creativity of having big dreams and little money. Although certainly different and much less desperate, I remember living in Finland and having almost zero money, navigating a strange land, pooling coins with my friends so we could all split a coffee, spending the night in a stairwell because we had no place else to go. At the time, it was just what you did. We spent the night in a phone booth because it was relatively warm. We lent a fellow exchange student money for eight months because although we had very little, he had none. You just did what needed doing. This part of the book brought back those memories for me and reminded me of what I consider truly essential.

Mostly it was the little moments: Robert and Patti going to Coney Island and sharing a hot dog and chocolate milk. Pooling their money for treasured art supplies for each of them. Believing in the genius of each other’s work: Patti encouraging Robert to take his own photos, Robert begging Patti to write a song. Endless hours of posing and collaborating and critiquing and retreating into the comfort of their friendship.

Of course then Robert found his patron, and soon stormed the photographic world with his iconoclastic images of gay men and the world of SM (and also his lovely stark photos of flowers, and portraits of fellow artists). And of course Patti Smith soon released Horses. And things were never the same.

She stops short, right on the threshold of their fame. This is the story of the beginning, of when they were truly just kids. In the last chapter, she tells the ending of their story, when Robert is ravaged by AIDS, and his genius is, like so many other artists in the 80s, cut short by his untimely death. The way she tells this part of the story is utterly breathtaking and heartbreaking. Heartcrushing. And yet, you must read to the end. I still feel devastated by the last pages. (apparently I am now able to read sad parts in books again)

I’m not at all doing this wonderful book justice. As if you need more convincing, it also won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and yeah, pretty much you should just go read it for yourself. You really, really need to read this book.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2011 7:20 am

    Sounds like a powerful book!

  2. February 10, 2011 9:03 am

    It was! So lovely, sweet, and devastating.

  3. February 10, 2011 3:50 pm

    I must read this, and waterspot my own library’s copy!

  4. February 10, 2011 7:03 pm

    I can’t wait to read this. Like, really can’t wait. I usually don’t read books on my iPad, but I might have to make an exception for this one so I can start it tonight.

    I adore stories like this. They stick with me long after I’ve finished them.

  5. February 11, 2011 9:25 am

    It’s worth getting into right away! I loved it.

  6. February 15, 2011 6:21 pm

    It’s been on my to-be-read list just because everyone was raving about it when it came out and I need a little bit of culture (all I knew and still know are that Mapplethorpe is a photographer and Patti Smith is a singer…right?) but honestly your review really makes me want to read it. Sounds like such a sweet moving story.

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