Just Kids (2010)
Words by Catherine Norrie
Just Kids (2010)
Never has there been more of a comfort to the struggling artist than Patti Smith’s autobiographical novel Just Kids. After purchasing the audiobook, I would listen to her Brooklyn New York narration, a slow meandering drawl that somehow provides exactly the complementary acoustic aid required for the listener in their envisioning of what she describes.
As I made my way through the streets of Edinburgh, the pavements slick with a fresh coating of rain, I found for myself a friend in Patti with her beaten down vagabond resilience. As I found myself traversing through summer’s path and landing in autumn full-throttle, Patti became something of a personal security blanket, offering some perspective and, of course, guiding me on my own way through life’s trials and tribulations. The watery sunshine or blustering winds curiously offered an elemental truth of their own, imbuing her words with the authenticity they already clearly possessed.
Her story, which centres largely around life with her late lover, friend and soul-mate, Robert Mapplethorpe, is a sad but strangely uplifting tale, an honest depiction of the events of her life which shaped her and at times almost threatened to shatter her. She provides an account of how they settled into a shared existence creating art together, and how they navigated this lifestyle in tandem with the drive for survival as the two battled to get by on the little money they had. This, a no-doubt all too relatable experience for many of the youth of today, is a story worth listening to if only for that reason. The meat of her tale, however, is set during the 1960s and offers a peek into the psychedelic backdrop of the era, with mention of the notorious Manson murders, the assassination of JFK, the Chelsea Hotel in which the couple occupied a room for a time, as well as many famous names from the epoch who the pair had the fortune of meeting and befriending. She speaks of coming of age amid the cultural movement, finding new meaning in her life as a consequence of the personalities she found her own entangled with, and how she rose above an austere childhood, a tricky adolescence and a young adulthood fraught with struggles.
The story begins on an intense and gripping note with the initial chapter focusing on Mapplethorpe’s premature AIDS-related death, the reader immediately roped into her emotional landscape and fully absorbed from the offset as a consequence. One of the most moving sections of the book details Mapplethorpe’s personal grievances with his sexual identity as he grapples with its fluidity and the effect this has on his lifestyle and artistic expression. Here Smith provides a fascinating account of her reaction and the impact this development had on her psychically, prompting changes to occur within her own artistic style and intriguingly causing her to embrace more of the feminine aspects of her nature. In the end, it became clear to her that the love they shared would continue on in one form or another and so, after a brief interval, they continued to cohabit for a time, remaining as friends until Mapplethorpe’s eventual death at the age of forty-two.
The memoir is, above all, a shining example of how love ought to be the principal guiding force in life no matter the circumstances.