Book Review: Just Kids (2010)

Stephen Colbert interviewed Patti Smith and she was so intriguing that I had to read her memoir, which won the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In Just Kids, the Godmother of Punk tells us about how she moved to New York with no money and barely any clothes. She knew she was an artist, and she wanted to let her talent blossom and be discovered in NYC. By chance, on her first day there she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, future homoerotic photographer extraordinaire. But at this point in time, "they're just kids," as an old man comments. They start out as starving artists, and often have to choose between buying food or art supplies. That eventually changes, but it takes years of hard work and self-discovery, and most importantly, an unbreakable bond between two passionate artists who serve as each other's muse.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe shared an absolute belief in their own and the other's art, and they held together despite doubts and fears and confusion and weirdness and the tumult of the sixties and the seventies. Rampant drug use? Check. Multiple partners? Sure. Angry war protests? Yup. Massacres? You betcha. Patti and Robert lived their youth through violent convulsions in US history--the Kennedy and MLK assassinations; the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia; the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin; and disco.

But the silver lining includes a growing acceptance for forms of art and music that pushed against rigid definitions and all sorts of boundaries. (In particular, Mapplethorpe's work provoked arguments about censorship and what should be considered obscene, especially when his X Portfolio series went on display.) Andy Warhol rose to fame through his pop art, Woodstock happened, and a revolutionary spirit charged the air. Through it all, Patti Smith remained a voracious reader and believed that art should change the times, not just mirror them. She was a woman on a mission.

Just Kids appeals on many levels -- it's a moving story about young, enduring love; a personal account of artistic growth; a reflected history of the country; and an index of must-read authors for the aspiring artist / rebel. Did I get teary-eyed in the last chapter? Does a homo bear poop in the woods?

This book is good.