Patti Smith - Just Kids
When Patti Smith's book "Just Kids" was released it just jumped up the bestseller lists and became very popular especially between "my kind of people" - means people with a crush on rock music that was released before or around the year of my birth (1973) or at least sounds like that, people who love poetry, people who love art and especially American art of the 20th century.
I was personally only mildly attracted because I usually look at booming bestsellers with a bit of skepticism and - even more important - as influential and brilliant Patti Smith doubtlessly is as an artist, I am not much of a fan. Her poetry and music doesn't really work for me. I know this is a bit surprising since I am a huge fan of almost all the incredible artists she mentions in her book, but that's like it is. And I think it's a fair point - my position always is that I can definitely value the creativity and talent of an artist but say at the same time "this is not mine". I see art from a very emotional point of view and you cannot force emotions.
Then came the day when I changed my mind and decided that I HAVE to read this book - February 21st 2011. I was standing thunderstruck in front of Robert Mapplethorpe's self portrait at the Whitney Museum in New York. This picture shows Robert suffering from AIDS, death already present. His face his slightly blurry, he wears black in front of a black background what has the effect that his body is almost vanishing. The center of the picture is his hand - crisp and clear - embracing a walking stick with a silver skull at the top. In my old post I linked to the picture instead of showing it and I do not want to show it here as well, because there is no image I could find in the internet that does the original justice. It looses too much in the usual low web resolution.
This photography is for sure one of the biggest and most meaningful pieces of art I have ever seen. Robert managed to make the process of dying visible. He captures the in-between. He is alive but he knows he is dying. The process has already started. His presence in this shot is incredibly intense. For me - and I know this sounds like a contradiction - this picture of him dying makes him immortal. There is more presence, emotion, intensity and LIFE in this picture than - sad enough - in many "living" people I met on my way.
When I will go back to New York next year, I'll visit Robert again. That's for sure. I generally want to visit the Whitney again on a weekday morning because a crowded Sunday afternoon was not a good idea - no air to breath in that building.
And so it was Robert and not Patti who made me download the book to my Kindle and go with them on their journey together and what a trip it was.
Looking at the book in its entirety I was surprised how unpretentious the language is - especially for a powerfully eloquent poetess like Patti Smith. Don't get me wrong - I did not expect long and winding florid metaphors from somebody who shared the table with the writers of the Beat Generation, but the structure is really simple and the wording sometimes slightly repetitive. It's not that I did not not enjoy reading a lot - it's just does not rank in my personal list of best literary experiences and maybe it's just me and Patti not having "the groove" - like with her music.
I also had the impression that Patti really makes sure that she is not gossiping about the incredibly famous people mentioned in the book. She is especially careful with her own ex-boyfriends - famous artists, musicians, writers and actors like for example Sam Shepard. When she describes the ends of her relationships it is often very abstract and modest. She never blames her partners although she sometimes must have been really hurt. On one hand it's a good move because this way she is not driving the attention away from the story of Robert's and hers relationship, but it also keeps the reader sometimes on a certain distance.
What I really loved is that all the people who crossed her way at the Chelsea Hotel and other places, who became legends and icons of the 20th century like the crowd around Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and many more become "human" again in her writing described at eye level, with impressions from real encounters and some cases friendships. Here the unpretentious language is definitely a plus.
But the most moving, most intense and most essential parts of the book are really the ones who focus on the relationship between Robert and Patti - a relationship that was from the first to the last day defined by the deep love and respect both felt for each other. It survived their break up as a couple (drifting away seems to describe it better since there was never a real break up), Robert's confession of his homosexuality, periods of personal and creative development that made them more fall apart than pulling them together. It for sure wasn't an easy love, but which really rich and intense relationship ever was easy?
Most impressed I was about the fact how confident both of them and especially Robert were always about their art. He never seemed to doubt that this was the way to go. Both always defined themselves as artists despite all setbacks and although they had to work many years long hours in other jobs simply to survive. For a long, long time they were neither rich nor famous but poor and starving.
My two favorite episodes directly relate to this aspect of the book:
When Robert and Patti were very young they would not have enough money for two tickets to a museum or exhibition (I can still feel the pain - museum admissions in New York are still painfully expensive). So only one of them would go in and the other would wait outside to get then a detailed descriptions of what the one inside had seen. One day Robert was waiting in front of the Whitney smoking and when Patti came out he told her that one day they would be both go inside together - for their own exhibitions with their art displayed. It's the same Whitney Museum where I froze in front of his self portrait, the same Whitney where he had several exhibitions, the same Whitney where his memorial service was held. He had a dream and he made it happen.
In the last couple of days you could find a lot of quotes of the late Steve Jobs all over the internet. Another person who believed in his dreams, made them happen and who left us the message not to give up but believe in ourselves. What he said fits very well to the way Robert lived:
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the result of other people's thinking. Don't let the voice of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow know what you truly want to become."
The other episode describes one of Patti's first concerts and suddenly she realizes that Bob Dylan is there. He is her idol - the man she modeled her life after (strong words, but that is what she said), but instead of freezing and getting nervous she takes in the energy and feels more confident than ever. His presence doesn't make her feel small it makes her stronger. She doesn't even mention if she later talked to Dylan and I guess she didn't, because it did not matter anymore.
All together "Just Kids" is the story about love, about two people being life long soul mates, about the power of creativity, art and dreams.
It starts and ends with Robert's death. I cried both times.