“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

I’d heard great things about Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids even before it won the National Book Award. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I kind of fell in love with it.

It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flame in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.

It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.

What I knew about Smith was that she was the godmother of punk, and the iconic photo of her from the cover of her album Horses. What I knew of Robert Mapplethorpe was censorship scandal over S & M photography, and he died from AIDS-related illness.

What I didn’t know filled a book. I was surprised and interested to learn that she started her artist’s life in poetry, and he his in painting, sculpture and other medium. She didn’t become a musician and he didn’t become a photographer for quite some time. And that time, their youth and their young love affair as they grew into the artists they’d become, is the subject of Smith’s book. She paints gruesome pictures with beautiful words of the early years–rough jobs, no jobs, starving and scrounging for food and art supplies. But she also details their many years in the art culture of the 70’s in NYC and specifically in the Chelsea Hotel. These parts of the narrative were like reading a history of a time I knew little about and was fascinated to learn. Directly after finishing, I did some further research online and plan to explore more of her music and his photography. Perhaps not the latter when the kids are around, though. Like Wise Blood, this book involved me and provoked me to find out more.

A word of warning about e-books. I read this on my nook. My edition had a lot of pictures, but not nearly as many as did the paperback edition. Do not read this electronically. Get the paperback edition of Just Kids. A book about a photographer should contain the maximum number of photos possible, not be limited because of ridiculous permission battles.

We got a nook color because it was well reviewed, we thought it was time to check out an e-reader, and because we could get Angry Birds to distract our boys in restaurants. On the Angry Birds front: big win. But as a reader, while I do like the ability to adjust the text size, I don’t like it as I do a physical book. I’m travelling this weekend and mulled whether to take the nook or a book. Downside to nook: have to take charger and the nook color only has about 8 hours of battery, which is about the length of my trip. Also, it can’t be used during takeoff, and landing. Thus, it’s staying at home, and I’m taking a real book, the oldest shelf sitter I have, one I’m unlikely to finish it in a weekend. I’ll have to see how I do with the tiny text, though. I’ll take my magnifying glasses, as the bifocals I just ordered won’t be in till next week. Happy reading, folks, in whatever format suits you!

3 Responses to ““Just Kids” by Patti Smith”

  1. carolyn Says:


  2. Amy Says:

    At the Chan Books and Bars, most people really liked this book. But one woman, quite a bit younger than the rest, found it “meh”. She wondered if it was a generational thing; she felt that Mapplethorpe used Smith, and Smith was an enabler, and there was nothing sweet or romantic about it. Is it generational, or was it just her? I too really liked it.

  3. girldetective Says:

    I would bet it’s a little of both. There was a younger woman at the Aster who seemed to disdain the “starve for your art” part of the story.