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Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

‘Just Kids’ Reveals Patti Smith’s Artful Prose

Robert Mapplethorpe prominent among evocative memories

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Patti Smith is known for making mediocre poetry and music that exposes the sound of poetry in a furious rock ’n’ roll setting. It’s a pleasing shock to find that her prose is evocative, finely structured and elegantly delicate. In Just Kids (Ecco/HarperCollins), she is more than a mere chronicler of what hip culture was like during the post-Beat poetry through the pre-punk rock era, roughly the early-’60s through the mid-’70s, because she tells her own story not as a diarist but with the artful prose of a critic.

The basic theme is her devout relationship with the late Robert Mapplethorpe, who altered photography by crossing the line between static image and transcendent work of art.

There is beauty in the simplicity of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, and tremendous care in her descriptions of him, candid and yet loving. They began as young lovers wanting to become famous artists. Her book’s evocative title suggests much of the story she will tell.

One anecdote follows another in Just Kids, and each has its individually touching as well as artful moment of distance. It’s hard to read this book and not feel as though it is the brightest novel of the year, and yet it is a history lesson cast in an intimate, emotional narrative from a real persona. One might compare this book to Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, for it takes us out of the writer’s expected medium and into another with professionalism, revelation and passion. Sincerity replaces hip. Truth reigns.

But where Dylan is mysteriously though honestly ambiguous, Smith is not; her writing is as precise as her poetry is not, with concrete words that express human realities that defy precision. She opens up a world that impacted upon the worlds of all artists who were once just kids. Along with Mapplethorpe, the story ranges from Gregory Corso, who never hid his feelings in public and taught Smith the same, to Sam Shepard, disguised as Slim Shadow in the Holy Modal Rounders, interviewed by Smith for Crawdaddy magazine without revealing his true self. Another lesson learned by Smith: One can be the “Other” each and every day in small ways and large.

This leads us to the famous Mapplethorpe photograph for the cover of Smith’s historic 1975 album, Horses. The unique and enduring image is the ideal result of a young love affair resulting in fame for both. The ’70s was a different time. Today’s alternative rockers view commercial achievement as a sign of being inauthentic. In the Warhol Pop Culture environment through which Smith passed, fame was good. The success of Horses began an ascent into stardom that climaxed with a hit single, “Because the Night.” Mapplethorpe ruefully but with pride remarked that Smith achieved the fame they both sought ahead of his own.

This was a noncompetitive remark, and Mapplethorpe’s cultural fame was just around the corner, as was his death from AIDS when Smith was married to Fred “Sonic” Smith and pregnant. Within this area of the book, with Smith about to give birth and working on an album again after many years of just raising a family, come forth the most moving passages of enduring love for the man who was her first love. With innocence ripped away, even as new life is about to begin within family as well as art, Patti is left alone sorting out Robert’s belongings.

Most reviewers will report incidents involving the famous contained within the narrative, and justifiably so, the most adoring being when a young Smith meets Allen Ginsberg for the first time. He fronts her small change for a sandwich she can’t afford at an automat, thinking she is a boy and wanting to get a date. When he finds out she is a girl, she innocently asks if she can still keep the sandwich. But it is the writing itself that is so alluring. Patti Smith is now among the great American writers of prose, essayists, novelists—all of them; she was once just a kid wanting to be a poet and a rock star, but she shines brightest with this book. She is a brilliant humanist, scholar and memoirist. No kidding.

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