Posted in Of Culturel

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids Cover (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it. – Patti Smith, Just Kids

My brain’s been chewing on this for the last few days. Should an artist be a mirror, something even Shakespeare claimed to do, or a transformer? Should art itself stop at reflecting life, or attempt to change it?

Patti Smith agitates me. Always. I’ve experienced her in three media now: her music, her documentary Dream of Life and her first book in prose Just Kids. Each time, I feel compelled to get up from my chair and do something. You would too, if you heard her sing:

Do you like this world around you? Are you ready to behave?

And I love her for it. I love her for waking me from my slumber, a delirium of quiet desperation, where art has become less of a revolution and more of a checklist. A resolution to fulfill, instead of a resolution to change.

I was rather surprised reading some of the top reviews on Goodreads for Just Kids. It won the National Book Award when it came out, so I suppose many who were not familiar with Smith’s music (as albums, instead of just the hit single “Because The Night”) picked it up, and didn’t quite get what she was about, or didn’t like it when they did. I admit, it’s not for everybody.

If I had to sum up the ethos of twentieth century art, I’d use the phrase “disrupt and disturb”. Breakdown, fragments, the world is not what it aspires to be. Which is what Smith’s work looks from the outside, right from her androgynous appeal, to her provocative music, to her incantatory style of delivering poetry. But, her work is wonderfully cohesive, earthy in a non-hippie way, and life-affirming. Most of all, she never seems to run after inspiration, or have a troublesome relationship with the Muses. It’s like they are always around for dinner, and Smith flits her attention from them to the gritty side of life with mature ease.


Speaking of dinner, hunger pervades much of this story, as does love, and it is a combination of the two that brings her and the actual subject of her book, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, together. It is much more than an origin story, much more than a first biography detailing ‘Before They Were Famous’ snippets of life. It is the formation of a co-dependent artistic life, in a city full of similar artistic dreamers. She frequently refers to her relationship with Mapplethorpe as that of twins, rather than partners or lovers. Each supports the other, loves the other, inspires the other, witnesses the other, and even when they are apart from each other, they blend into an entity where there is no ‘other’.

Some incidents might seem too neat to the cynical reader, but if there is anything that can be derived from this book about Patti Smith, it is her unswerving belief in destiny, in the greater significance of the littlest of things, how meaning can be derived from everything we do. I might be presumptuous in this, but it might explain her excellent work ethic. If we, as readers, are to descend from these aerial ideas, and look at the grittier side of being an artist, then Smith proves that accepting the drudgery of the real world while holding on with unshakeable faith to the one you build on your own, is a better attitude than fighting the former and chasing the latter. She works all day at a 9-to-5 job even after establishing herself as a poet, works on her art all night, and never lives with the certainty that either will provide for her and Mapplethorpe for the most basic necessities like food, rent, books, art supplies etc.

The writing style might be difficult to get into for some. It would be called poetic prose, but it is so unabashedly affective throughout, you either snigger or reach for your handkerchief. I kept the book down frequently, let the emotions wash over, and began again. But, then Smith does have a tendency to make me fight all my defenses. To be authentic in everything I do, for she is so unapologetically authentic in everything she does. In everything she is.

More reviews to come, though my ‘Of’ essays will also continue…

Read my last review on Paul Beatty’s The Sellout by clicking here.

Read my last post Of Blogging and Money by clicking here.

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Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

  1. Excellent job here, you make some very astute points about art and writing. I know Patti Smith only marginally more than Because The Night. I’ve heard other stuff but I can’t say it affected me the way it seems to have for you. She is one of those perennial artsy New Yorkers I admire though. Her presence just seems to be everywhere.

    1. Really? I would have thought at least Horses would be an easy one to like, uh, be bowled over by. You and I talk a lot about music, but have completely different tastes!
      I loved the book, I love her music and I love her as an entity, what she stands for. I like that she doesn’t commit to a side, an idea, a belief other than her own. She could have easily latched on to a major movement at the time, but she didn’t, which is why she is more niche than she should be, I think. I highly recommend her documentary Dream of Life. Even if you don’t like her music or her, it goes beyond than that, and towards the end commands you to do something to make a change in this world.
      I wanted to go on about her, and maybe I will if I do music reviews. She makes me think so much!

      1. Horses is one of the ones I heard, but it was a long time ago. I seem to have developed many more musical guises since then so perhaps I need to re-investigate. At my heart I’m a folkie…except when I listen to soul music. Or ska. Or punk. Or World music….you get what I mean! The point is that the things I dismissed or didn’t much care for years ago are resonating more for me. I’m old enough to remember the tail end of The Clash’s career. Now teenage Rob loved Rock The Casbah on MTV as much as anyone. But get me to like Clampdown, or London’s Burning, or Clash City Rockers and that never would have happened. It was only years later that I got it. I finally understood the aggression and anger, and I liked it. So I was late to the party, but enjoyed it once I got there! So I’ll promise to give Patti Smith another go.I’ll look into the Dream Of Life documentary. I am curious. There was a great article about her in the New York Times last year that I really enjoyed so I’m glad I read your review here to remind me. Despite what I said, I look forward to reading more of your reviews here. And yes, we do have very different musical tastes but I like the fact that you are so open about exploring new sounds. I am much more so than I ever used to be! In that light, I wrote a new post that actually has music by the British Indian composer Nitin Sawhney! Me and electronica don’t usually mix, but his stuff is really good!

      2. Yes, I saw you have written on Nitin Sawhney, though I am yet to read it!

        I think you will enjoy Just Kids. It definitely is your kind of book. There are great pictures in it too, not all by Robert Mapplethorpe.

        I think I’m open to music because I’m greedy. I don’t talk about it, but I’ve had to rebel against constrictions when it comes to music right from the time I was a child. Anything people told me to listen to, I wouldn’t and that carried over to my teens and twenties, when boys claimed to “teach” me musical taste, i.e. heavy metal. That’s what appeals to me about early punk, that it’s anti-imposition of every kind. I think the women in that era are more interesting than the men, and they definitely took the idea of the female musician in pop that much further. Even Debbie Harry, who is so obviously beautiful.

        Have you read The Sellout? By Paul Beatty, it won the Man Booker last year. I feel like I’m plugging my review, but I am nervous about what an American would think of it, especially since it is such an American book. I’ve only read British reviews of the book, and most have a very eloquent way of saying “Ooo, not going there” about the subject matter, and just praising the boldness and timeliness of it all. I tried to be more courageous with it, but I am not sure. I am not asking you to read it of course. Maybe if you read the book, we can discuss through email.

      3. I’m going to look into both books. I have not read The Sellout but I am familiar with it. I actually want to pick up a new book this weekend so I might pick one of these two up!

        I do know what you mean about being greedy about music. I blinked and missed the entire 90’s music scene-grunge and everything else, because I was (mostly) so heavily engrossed with folk music. John Jones from Oysterband once described that for them, when the punk thing was essentially dying out in the UK and people were looking for an alternative folk became it. That is absolutely what happened to me despite people saying have you heard Pearl Jam? Have you heard Nine Inch Nails? I think one of the cool things about music is that you can catch up though. Sure, some things are dated by the time you might catch them up, but other things are not. So even when someone tries to ‘teach’ and you rebel against it, you have opportunity to come back to it. If you want to that is. In a way, I’m feeling the punk aesthetic more personally these days. I seem to have a middle finger raised sort of feeling about a lot of things these days! Your observation about women in punk is interesting, and I have a friend who is a huge Blondie fan and made a similar comment once.

    1. I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed with Horses. It truly deserves the “before you die” tag, even if you don’t listen to anything else by her. There isn’t a single dull, dragging moment in it, and even the ‘epic’ songs are done in a punk fashion. There’s one called “Birdland”, which has the same source material as Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”.
      I also recommend Easter, if you want to explore her music further. The quote in my post is from a song called “Rock n roll nigger”, which is just brilliant.

      1. Cloudbusting is better though! I find it interesting, the different approaches two contemporary artists take, though each song was released ten years apart.
        Nerdy fact only KB fans will care about: She called “Don’t push your foot on the heartbreke” from the album Lionheart her “Patti Smith song”.

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