Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

Author: Sherry Helms

Just Kids is a tenderly evocative memoir by Patti Smith and a haunted elegy for both her soul mate Robert Mapplethorpe and a lost New York City. Patti Smith tells us that fame didn’t come easily to her at all, but only after a lifetime’s immersion in the “radiance of imagination”, a childhood fueled by books and Sunday school, poetry and prayer and pop music.

Ms. Smith tells us how a sight of a swan produced a transcendent moment of being: “The swan became one with the sky . . . and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.” Ms. Smith was a precocious reader who was often punished by her teachers for day dreaming. She worked in a toy factory when she was a teenager and slept on a cot in the laundry room of her parent’s house in South Jersey. She writes of becoming pregnant at 19 in New Jersey, giving up her baby and heading to New York for a fresh start. In the Brooklyn city she discovers that her friends with whom she had intended to stay had moved away but fate introduced Ms. Smith to Mapplethorpe.

Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe soon became roommates, soul mates, friends, lovers and muses. They were never starving artists in a garret but the romanticism and myth making of “Just Kids” and their tenancy in the tiniest room at the Chelsea Hotel, brought them pretty close to that ideal. She enshrines her early days with Mapplethorpe this way “We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed.” They went to museum together where they were able to afford only one ticket. The one who saw the exhibition would describe it to the one who waited outside. They loved the same totems and ornaments, valued the same things though in different ways.

Smith’s memoir of their friendship, Just Kids, is tender and artful that begins and ends with the phone call that tells her of the death of Mapplethorpe (sleeping youth cloaked in light) who shared her transit from obscurity to stardom without sacrificing their vision along the way.

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