(*Recommended reading age: For mature readers only)

This post is about the recipient for the non-fiction category of the 2010 National Book Awards: Just Kids by Patti Smith, one of the most moving books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

The deckle-edged edition is soon to be available at Fully Booked. Even if I own the hardcover already, I will definitely buy the deckle-edged version (the cover has a great photo of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; the back has a photo of them locking lips) as I really love the feel of the uneven pages.

For those who aren’t familiar with Patti Smith, here’s a brief background: Smith is an American musician who is also known for her poetry, activism, and work as a visual artist. Furthermore, she is also known as one of punk rock’s pioneers and is considered a style icon of the 70s. Aside from her recent win at the National Book Awards, Smith is recognized as Commander of the Order des Artes et des Letteres, a title bestowed on her by the French Minister of Culture in 2005. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and is also a recipient of the 2011 Polar Music Prize. 

Patti Smith performing at Tivolis Koncertsal, Copenhagen, Denmark.–Wikipedia

Just Kids is a memoir of life with her dearest friend and soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most influential photographers of his generation.

Self Portrait, 1980-Wikipedia

In all honesty, I’m no lover of poetry though I do admire the work of certain poets like Ted Hughes and E.E. Cummings. I was a little hesitant to read this book—I wasn’t sure if it was one of those books that told a story purely through poetry, but my desire to learn more about the enigmatic Patti Smith (being a fan of her music and art) overcame my fear of not being able to relate. I am so glad I made that choice.

The book does not consist solely of poems though there are a few, but it felt like a string of beautiful verses, seamlessly overlapping. Patti Smith writes with a fluidity and grace that is close to lyrical. She speaks of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe with such profundity and reverence. They seemed destined for each other; I believe it was much more than coincidence the first time they laid eyes on each other, and how he would later on save her from an unpleasant experience.

I am awestruck that two people could have such a strong connection, and how their love transcended the physical, evolving into something so pure. (I am deliberately being vague as I don’t want to deprive anyone of reading this wonderful story)

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe by Norman Seeff

The book corrected many misconceptions I had of Patti Smith. I initially thought that she was a harsh woman whose life was marked by vice—it doesn’t help that she’s reed thin and looked haggard even at a young age, or that she was part of a generation that lost many to AIDS or addiction. A large part of her life was spent surviving poverty and starvation, and through all this she maintained such a great outlook and a constant determination to improve her artistry and her relationships with the people around her. It baffles me how someone could have gone through so much suffering and emerged victorious. She is a Renaissance woman in every aspect. I also love the fact that she worked in a bookstore (Scribner’s Bookstore).

Just Kids also recalls an era so steeped in creativity, originality, and raw talent—New York in the 60s and 70s. In its pages are Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, members of the 27 Club (group of musicians who all died at age 27): Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and the famed Hotel Chelsea, where many staggering works of genius were created, not to mention the death of many famous personalities, including the tragic death of longtime girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, supposedly by his hand.

Patti Smith’s writing is admirable. Smith manages to speak of how they (she and Robert) emerged as these larger-than-life creatures—respected and revered as two of the most gifted creative trailblazers of their generation—without an ounce of conceit or self-consciousness.

The book had many painful moments, but I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in one evening, and when I finally closed it and set it down, it felt like I was saying goodbye to a person and not merely finishing  a book.

Patti Smith promised Robert Mapplethorpe she would write their story. She has done so much more than that, and has revived his spirit and the spirit of a lost generation with the gift of her words.

Keep reading:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *