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Just Kids (Review)

Patti Smith, Ecco

By Steven Rosen · April 14th, 2010 · Lit
Because Patti Smith’s music can be so ferociously turbulent, and because of her Punk legacy, it’s easy to overlook her tender side — one that exudes a charitable, compassionate sweetness and undying loyalty to friends and family as well as awe at the magnificence of great art. Smith wasn’t so much a rebel against post-war middle-class America as a young woman in love with books and music who wanted to be surrounded by them as an alternative to the working-class life she felt awaited her.

In her eloquent and elegiac memoir Just Kids, she is able to concentrate on her “quieter” sides. The result is a Rock bio that stands with Bob Dylan’s Chronicles in its intelligence and literary merit.

In its evocation of late-1960s/ early-1970s New York, where a post-Warhol alternative arts scene had to negotiate drugs and poverty (and, eventually, AIDS) to come to full flower, it reads like a Rock & Roll La Boheme.

Amazingly, Smith seems to wander through its roughest edges with her un-jaded enthusiasm for life intact. While she covers her days growing up in New Jersey — including a teen pregnancy that resulted in giving up the baby to a family — the heart of the book is her passionately devoted relationship with the late Robert Mapplethorpe. They both scrounged for food and lodging together as new arrivals in New York City and became lovers, he making art and she writing poetry and music reviews while they lived in the Chelsea Hotel and went to Max’s Kansas City.

Smith beautifully elucidates her conflicted yet loyal feelings toward Mapplethorpe as he began discovering his homosexuality as well as the dark, erotic impulses that fueled his photography. But she also has time to grow herself, through relationships with playwright Sam Shepherd, poet Jim Carroll and rocker Albert Bouchard, as she tentatively takes steps to become the singer whose 1975 album Horses is one of Rock’s greatest accomplishments. One eagerly awaits volume two of her memoirs. Grade: A



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