Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just Kids

On the forceful recommendation of a coworker, I'm currently reading Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids. Despite the praise that's been showered on the book, I likely wouldn't have picked it up had my friend not pressed it on me: I admire Smith but wouldn't count myself a fan, and the dream of hand-to-mouth bohemian youth is one I've never shared. Even when I was twenty, I knew it wasn't for me. All I've ever really wanted was stability, and the time and mental space to read, a combination I was able to find right out of college in bookstore work and have been lucky enough to retain in my work and home life since.

What makes Smith's memoir work for me, instead, is its unabashedly open heart. She doesn't glorify the hungry years, but she deeply loves the Chelsea Hotel and the New York scene and she's grateful for what she learned there. What come through is her unwavering commitment to her art, and to Robert Mapplethorpe and his art. Everything else is secondary--but Smith's genius comes in her willingness to let that fact be, for the most part, implicit: we are trusted to feel that way ourselves, which frees her from the risks of spelling it out and letting pretension seep into what is really a story of finding one's artistic and emotional way, and watching as someone you love develops as an artist and a person.

And amid the stories of hunger and lice and stoned friends and plastic cups for peeing in because there's no toilet in the loft apartment, there are here and there moments that shine even for someone of my bourgeois lifestyle. This scene, for example:
A few evenings later Matthew appeared out of nowhere with a boxful of 45s. He was obsessed with Phil Spector; it seemed like every single Phil had produced was in it. His eyes darted nervously across the room. "Do you have any singles?" he asked anxiously.

I got up and rummaged through the laundry and found my singles box, which was cream-colored and covered with musical notes. He immediately counted our combined collection. "I was right," he said. "We have just the right number."

"The right number for what?"

"For a night of one hundred records."

It made sense to me. We played them, one after another, starting with "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman." Each song was better than the next. I leapt up and started dancing. Matthew kept changing the sides like some deranged disc jockey. In the middle of it all, Robert came in. He looked at Matthew. He looked at me. He looked at the record player.

The Marvelettes were on. I said, "What are you waiting for?"

His coat dropped on the floor. There were thirty-three more to go.
I had no brief for youth even when I was one, but oh, the thought of a hundred-record party. . . . It makes sense to me.

{Photo by rocketlass.}


  1. Damn it! I thought this was one I could ignore for similar reasons to yourself, but it sounds really promising.

    Of course, I don't HAVE to buy every book that sounds interesting, but where's the fun in that?

  2. I am totally with JRSM. If it were not for your review, I would have felt just fine leaving this one on the shelf.

  3. I've had this book on my to-read list ever since it came out, a friend of mine read it and loved it...and now your review makes me want to read it all the more (or possibly add it to my Christmas wish list!) Thanks for sharing!