Thursday, February 10, 2011

What We're Reading - Just Kids by Patti Smith

JUST KIDS, by Patti Smith

When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe first met, they were about 20 years old. She had the grand idea of moving to New York City and crashing at her friends’ apartment in Brooklyn. That didn’t work out as planned, and Patti slept in the park (when it was still relatively safe to do so), in doorways, and on the street for some time. She finally landed a job at Brentano’s Book Store and it was there she met Mapplethorpe. He was buying a beautiful Persian necklace that she admired. Eventually, as their friendship blossomed, he would give that necklace to her.

Smith and Mapplethorpe had much in common, so it was easy to imagine how they gravitated towards each other. They were both born in 1946 and came from Catholic backgrounds. They enjoyed literature and art. Both adored William Blake. Robert was busy creating collages and making necklaces. Patti was writing poetry and sketching. Both were subsisting on part-time jobs and struggling to make ends meet. Each needed the other’s approval of their work. Some would say each was the muse of the other. Early on in their friendship, they vowed to remain friends forever. As the years passed, their relationships with other individuals and lovers would come and go, but the bond between them remained. Robert asked for Patti’s approval of his work, and vice versa. Each encouraged the other to become all that they could.

As Smith's and Mapplethorpe’s stars began to rise, they came into contact with the New York City social and art scene of the 1970s. While living at the Chelsea Hotel, they encountered poets, rock stars, and authors. Their contacts with Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Peggy Binderman, Janis Joplin, Bob Neuwirth, Andy Warhol, and Candy Darling are duly noted. In the early 1970s, Robert met Sam Wagstaff, his patron and lover. Sam was able to provide Robert with cameras and supplies. Robert encouraged Sam to collect photography and gain recognition for it as an art form. Patti, on the other hand, was involved in writing poetry, performing at poetry readings, and singing as the front "man" in a rock band.

Unfortunately, this memoir has a tragic ending. Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and died in March of 1989. During one of Patti's and Robert’s last conversations, he asked her if she would tell their story to the world. She promised she would. This is that story, beautifully written, with tenderness, humor, honesty and introspection; a story of two people who became iconic cultural figures and remained friends forever. I commend Ms. Smith for carrying out her best friend’s wishes in this wonderfully written memoir. It was a real treat to read.

2010 National Book Awards Presentation of the Nonfiction Award from National Book Foundation on Vimeo.

Click here for an interview with Patti Smith about Just Kids.

Thank you to Nancy for this review of the 2010 National Book Award winner for nonfiction.

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