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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Patti Smith's "Just Kids" - One of the Best Retrospectives and Studies (not to mention Love Story) of the late 1960s

This book addresses quite a few questions regarding the process of creation and artistry in general. The fact that these two--Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe managed to accomplish all they did together (and separately) during the most challenging times in this country is a testimony of their collective commitment to art. This narrative of two lives destined to shine is blindingly beautiful prose, difficult to identify to anyone else but the author. It is obvious that Patti Smith put her soul and heart into this book; to do anything else would have been insulting to Robert and all the other great artists, poets, and musicians with whom she shares the stage of the narrative. I really didn't think personal accounts of this sort could ever reach a more poetic and musical form with words--Patti Smith is a poet, an artist, and a great musician. Her development as all of the aforementioned is neatly detailed with each passing page, and, more importantly, not losing the larger picture of her wonderful and loving relationship with Mapplethorpe. "Just Kids" is a wonder to read, and a lesson of love and art.

What impressed me the most was the wonderful pattern the book followed regarding Smith's lyrical style. Every single part of the narrative (not chapters, but simple breaks) ended with a wonderful poetic line(s) that invite the reader to continue reading and reading and reading. Some of the one's that really got to me were: "I wondered why he devoted so much time to me. I reasoned it was because we were both wearing long coats in July, the brotherhood of La Boheme..." and "There was something of us that he saw in a movie but I wasn't certain what. I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know." and "... I would someday hold his ashes in my hand" and "There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn't speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness." and "David Flavin had conceived his installation in response to the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam. No one in the back room was slated to die in Vietnam, though a few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation." There many more I cannot continue to write here--go get the book and read it.

The books is peppered with photographs taken by Mapplethorpe. One thing that this book is full of is hope. It's amazing to me how confident of his (their) success Robert Mapplethorpe was. I think it does hold water that common dictum of dream big... but to have so much hope in an era of so much confusion and destruction is really a testimony to all Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe achieved together and in their own right.

There are mentions of the entire famous (infamous) crowd at the Chelsea Hotel in New York from 1968 to the latter stages of the decade and into the 1970s when the hotel lost its luster of artists and Bohemia. Nevertheless, those who are mentioned appear like a list of "Who's Who" in the late 1960s. Of particular interest to me was the person of Maxime de la Fallaise, a French model and later New York socialite whose photograph I first saw in an early issue of "At Random," a photograph I cut off and hung in my college dorm room because she looked exactly as my mother looked in her early 20s. Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan appear, but Patti Smith does a great job of not making it sound like a name-dropping episode in the narrative. One humorous story is that of how Allen Ginsburg bought Patti Smith lunch on account that she looked like "an attractive young boy," to the poet of the generation.

I got this book because, aside from being reviewed in the NYT, I felt I could learn quite a bit from it about the creative process. The book did not disappoint when it came to its didactic qualities. Again, how these two managed to be so assured of success, supporting each other through one of the most turbulent of ages of our nation is a testimony to the power of art, literature and music to overcome all.

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