There was quite some buildup to me reading this book. I’ve been holding onto a borrowed copy of it for awhile, waiting for the right time to dive in. Having just returned from New York, and having seen it in basically every bookstore there, I thought it was time. Guess what? I was massively disappointed.
I know Patti Smith won some sort of book award for writing this thing. And I know she’s a good writer. But I hated reading most of it. Just Kids is, unfortunately, the most pretentious thing I’ve read. Maybe not ever, but certainly since high school, and that was awhile ago, and also I didn’t even know what “pretentious” meant back then. I don’t even think I really knew what it meant until I finished this book, but I definitely have a firm grasp on the definition now. Smith writes about her young, naive, self-indulgent life from an incredibly entitled place. It’s one thing to be apologetic for your past idiocies; it’s another to be proud of them, and she is definitely more of the latter than the former. She went through her twenties with this unparalleled arrogance, taking what she needed to make her life with Robert Mapplethorpe supremely artistic and bohemian and symbolic. And she doesn’t regret any of it! I suppose I should admire her for her regret-free existence, because I certainly won’t ever be that way, but it’s just so ridiculous to me. She never gave the readers a chance to get to know her, to understand her thoughts, before she started analyzing their deep and profound meanings for us. Let me share some examples:
p. 6 // “In the months of spring, I was often ill and so condemned to my bed, obliged to hear my comrades at play through the open window. In the months of summer, the younger ones reported bedside how much of our wild field had been secured in the face of the enemy. We lost many a battle in my absence and my weary troops would gather around my bed and i would offer a benediction from the child soldier’s bible, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.” Fuck this army metaphor, man. That whole paragraph could have been reduced about 50%.
p. 71 // “When he covered the walls and medallion ceiling of our bedroom with Mylar, I felt shut out because it seemed more for him than me. He had hopes it would be stimulating but in my eyes it had the distorted effect of a funhouse mirror. I mourned the dismantling of the romantic chapel in which we slept. He was disappointed I didn’t like it. ‘What were you thinking?’ I asked him. ‘I don’t think,’ he insisted. ‘I feel.'” First of all, no one fucking says that. Second of all, no one refers to their apartment as a “romantic chapel.” Third of all, no one avoids sentence-final prepositions that auspiciously.
p. 104 // “Yet you could feel a vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods.” Come on. I don’t need to say anything.
p. 125 // “‘I know I’m a fake smoker,’ I would say, “but I’m not hurting anybody and besides I gotta enhance my image.'” What bothers me here is not the fake smoking thing; that’s definitely a believable twentysomething sentence. It’s the use of “would,” which I think memoirists abuse the hell out of. “Would” implied habit, but I bet you she said this once, or probably never.
p. 241 // “We recorded in Studio B with a small eight-track setup in the back of Electric Lady. Before we started, I whispered, ‘Hi, Jimi,’ into the microphone.” This is the sort of nice moment that she should have kept to herself, but instead she chose to share it to prove how cool she is.
There’s a lot more where this came from; all throughout the book, she details how important her work was, and how important Robert’s work was, and how they needed to steal things in order to express themselves, and all this bullshit. And it really bugged me that she kept using the first-person singular in reference to her musical career, when it was so obvious that she needed the rest of the band to be who she was. It seems so phony! And yet, by the powers of New York, they manage to make it in their own backwards way. I can’t say she was a very sympathetic “character,” but I did come to admire the trajectory of her career as I continued reading. I like that she’s not known for precisely one thing. She has a wide variety of interests and talents, and she doesn’t identify by one of them. That’s something.
Admittedly, she also plopped down a few gems (in the midst of all the absurd poetic turds):
p. 61 // “In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.”
p. 185 // “‘You can’t,” he said. ‘It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.’ In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life.”
Her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe was a fascinating one, and this book obviously brought more insight and beauty and intimacy to it than any other possibly could. I found their story intriguing, even if I was sort of repulsed by it at the same time. And I suppose I’m glad I read it; Just Kids is also an account of the East Village in the late 60s and early 70s, a mystical time that is really only alive in the minds of those who lived it. This is just one account, and it reads, in her words, like an “aural sword.”