Monday, May 23, 2011

What I'm Reading: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It's no easy thing to write of innocence, long after innocence is gone. Patti Smith's memoir of her early life, and of her deeply spiritual relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, won a National Book Award last year, and it accomplishes this with enormous subtlety and grace.

For me, what makes Just Kids so remarkable is the absence of self-aggrandizement, it's relating of life simply as it was, without any pretense of wisdom or judgment arrived at through hindsight. More than anything, it describes the journey of two artists in pursuit of their talent... and specifically, it illuminates the fact that while art may be what results from devotion to one's craft, it's possible - intrinsic, in fact - to be an artist long before you've found your means of expression. I can think of few works that describe the road to artistic self-discovery so well.

Bob Dylan set the recent trend for rock musician memoirs (beside Smith's book, Keith Richards Life was well also received of course, but a mass of less interesting books, by lesser talents -  Steven Tyler comes to mind - arrive weekly, it would seem). Smith is an avowed devotee of Dylan, and given her poetic/ mystic leanings, I anticipated a similar book from her, one that would play with structure and allusive imagery. For twenty pages I was surprised, confounded even, by the simplicity of the prose. This, it turned out, was the book's strength - and my misreading. And of course, the writing isn't simple - it's seamless instead, which is far from the same thing. It's a book filled with tenderness, not only for Mapplethorpe, but for Smith's own youth, for an era, and for the remarkable characters who somehow populated Smith's life (see brief, delicate portraits of Sam Shepard and Jim Carroll, for example). It's a book that's particularly notable for one of the rarest qualities in memoir, or indeed, in arts and entertainment in general - humility.

(photographer unknown)

                                       (photographer unknown)

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