When I finished Just Kids by Patti Smith, I started crying. For Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS, for Sam, his patron and lover who also died of AIDS. For all the artists and patrons before them, who lived and worked restlessly, many of which walking the same streets, living in the same building, drinking coffees in the same cafes. William S. Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Ginsburg, Jim Carroll, Lou Reed. The misfit icons and legends, their stories mixed in with those who did not become famous – but whose lives were just as bright, just as fleeting. The hazy storm of memory always breaks into bright points of precision – lightning strikes of details – moments burned into your mind.
Reading of Patti’s Smith youth – of the sharp, wild years of her late teens and early twenties – I felt as if I’d fallen into the past. A world of second hand stores and records, of poverty and purpose, of obsessions and confusion. The struggle to find authenticity against the reflections of others, if I am not this then perhaps I am that. Drastic actions and bold decisions made in an instant, real fear something only known through abstraction. Nothing can really touch you when you have your hands full of everything within reach. And every song and work of art is a special message written just for you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately. The passage of time, of human lives always rising up and ebbing out, over and over. I’ve finally entered into the comfortable stage of life, my once frantic mind now more of a slow but steady churn. Sometimes I feel a deeper understanding and other times I feel as if meaning is too elusive a goal.
I don’t read many autobiographies because, honestly, I prefer the cryptic autobiographies of fiction. By that I mean that all storytellers reveal themselves through the stories they tell, and I prefer the charade of costumes and imagined characters. Dozens of imagined lives stemming from one. Autobiographies always strike me as somewhat arrogant, for who can really remember their lives accurately, let alone the details of others? Still, some people have a gift for it. And some lives are practically theater already, their experiences and situations so far from the norm you can’t help but separate them into a fantasy genre all their own. Artist with a capital A and the like. Even if you discover Andy Warhol ate the same breakfast cereal you do, you’ll never quite feel connected with him, you know? But now I feel a connection to Patti… and to Robert Mapplethorpe.
Patti Smith’s book makes you feel young again. She’s brought the stars down from the sky and blown on them, revealing dusty, pock-marked rocks in her hands. They were beautiful in the blinding light of fame, but she revels in showing the reader how desperately fragile, how flawed and horribly delicate their hearts were.
I read this book and spent hours looking at pictures of the old Chelsea Hotel in its decades of decline and decadence. I listened to Patti Smith songs, now feeling the life behind her wispy voice and the strong spirit behind her thin frame. I was already familiar with Robert’s work – but now I saw the sensitivity behind the photos, felt the pacing self-inspection of each piece, caught meaning in details that before meant nothing to me – the feathers and beads, the religious iconography, the small smile. This book has brought these two artists closer to me – made their strange lives more accessible. Small vignettes of other artists, writers, and performers I was already familiar with now got caught in a wider web – the human one – showing how people come and go, sometimes only for a instant, into others lives. A sandwich, a kind word, a bet, a dare, a jealous contempt or sincere admiration. Big pictures became smaller, and small moments became as wide as the sky, the colors changing depending on where you stand.
Rating: Five Stars.