Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review: Patti Smith's Just Kids

Reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids—with so many minute details about NYC in the 70s and 80s— I got the feeling she probably kept journals to which she referred when putting down the story of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, back when they were poor and struggling, aspiring to a fame that seemed elusive until “suddenly” (after a decade or so) it didn’t. And yet, despite so many fine strokes, the book as a whole more resembles an impressionistic painting than photorealism, perhaps an intentional blurriness applied by Smith to smooth away the rougher edges of how life surely must actually have been for the pair.

In that vein, I offer here my own impressionistic thoughts as I stand back and consider the book as a whole. Because I connected with JK as far more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the writing style doesn’t seem particularly soaring or intricately crafted, despite the fact that the book won the National Book Award. Though maybe this is a literary sleight of hand considering that the scenes and emotions are rendered so vividly that I continue to carry them with me—not always the case once I finish reading a book.

I confess that I initially resisted reading JK. The main reason, upon close inspection, is sort of silly. My all time favorite teacher went to college with Smith and I have this vague but indelible decades-old memory of her telling me a couple of unsavory anecdotes about Smith. Nothing horrific. I  realized I allowed myself, courtesy of allegiance to my mentor, to feel an annoyance by proxy. This, coupled with the fact I never much connected with Smith’s music (I don’t dislike it, I’m just not swept away by it) was enough for me to skip buying a copy of JK when it first came out, despite the urging of a friend with whom I share very similar tastes.

But when JK won the National Book Award, I grew curious. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight into awards. But NBA is a pretty massive honor, so I figured maybe there was something I didn’t know about Smith that was worth knowing. Sure enough, even if the writing style didn’t bowl me over, the stories sent my mind flying in so many directions, got me reminiscing about my own coming-of-age artistic efforts, and so made me feel as if I were in a very particular place and time that Smith describes that I noticed my feelings about New York-- which mostly run toward anxiety-riddled—shifted. Reading JK I got as excited about the city as I did reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

What pulled me in initially was the story of Smith’s childhood. We literally came from—and fled— the same place: South Jersey. The small blue-collar towns in which we grew up lie side by side. Our high schools were miles apart. And both of us briefly attended Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) before rejecting that school. I understood exactly what she describes when she writes about that place. I know precisely how hard it is to escape from it. And I recognize how being from there might just be a major catalyst fueling a desire to show the world some greatness you think/hope you have inside of you. (Maybe that’s why so many famous people come out of New Jersey. Maybe all this fame is entirely based on an I-made-it-IN-SPITE-of-being-from-here.)

Also, like Smith, I had a child “out of wedlock” as the judgmental put it. I’d say both of us were changed so much, inspired in our art so much, by these early pregnancies. But here’s the differential: Patti Smith is 20 years older than me. Back when she got pregnant sans marriage, the pressure to partake in a shotgun wedding or else surrender the child for adoption was enormous. Not so for me. I thought about this quite a bit as I read JK. Smith gave her firstborn away, and details the painful and prolonged emotions of this (forced-by-society) “choice,” which, despite the attendant pain, also gave her a certain freedom—if not from the emotional burden of the adoption, then from the day-to-day duties of young motherhood. I, on the other hand, was “allowed” to keep my firstborn, thankful he arrived at a time when doing so was “acceptable”—or at least less unacceptable. While I won’t go so far as to say that being a mother robbed me of freedom, certainly the choice shaped my days differently than that of childfree artist chasing a dream, unobstructed by diaper changes and middle-of-the-night feedings.

On one level, JK is a “simple” love story of two very young aspiring artists on a very wild adventure that came during a very exciting time in history. Timing might not be everything, but it certainly plays a big enough role. Had Smith arrived in NYC twenty years earlier, she never would have become the godmother of punk. Had she arrived twenty years later—well, maybe she could’ve given Madonna a run for the money. Whatever heady adventure Smith and Mapplethorpe engaged in, their coming of age saga was all the richer for the excitement brewing around them, revolutionary attitude changes about art and sex and politics, and friendships forged with cutting edge artists a few steps ahead of them— Warhol, Hendrix, Ginsberg, etc.

Reading JK, I was reminded of the direct, stripped down descriptions in Bukowski’s Ham on Rye and the grandiose proclamations of Isadora Duncan’s My Life. Smith doesn’t spend time shaping carefully wrought metaphors or hiding behind modesty real or false. She lays it bare, and speaks often of a shared belief she and Mapplethorpe held that they would one day garner international recognition. She also has a skill for downplaying and romanticizing circumstances that surely must have been more difficult to deal with while they were occurring, referring, for example, to the heroin habit of her onetime lover Jim Carroll as modest (WTF—can one really have a modest heroin habit?) and describing life in a cold, toilet-free loft in a manner that makes it seem far less uncomfortable than surely it must have been. And yet, before I make too much of this glossing over, I recall the sundry dumps I live in, many of which were in houses that have long since been condemned and razed, that nonetheless continue to occupy the Happy Memoris file in my mental hard drive.

Of the many parts of the story I related to, perhaps the strongest resonance revolved around Smith’s description of her perpetually evolving and morphing friendship with Mapplethorpe. The two were around 20 when they met and their relationship was incredibly intense—a sometimes romance that frayed when he wrestled with and then embraced his true sexuality. When I was 18, I also met a boy about my age and the friendship we developed – though it did not ever become a romance unless you count that two-minute drunken make out session up against a cigarette machine in a skanky bar at the Jersey shore one night—sometimes felt as intense to me as the one Smith describes. He was the first one in my life EVER to say, “I love you to me”—I don’t mean first boy or first friend to say this, I mean first person (in my family, we didn’t bother with such verbal sentiment). And when he said those words, it changed my life, simultaneously made me squirm and opened up something deep inside.

My friend told me that he wanted to be a writer because I was a writer. And he did just that, going on to become a quite famous, his words bringing him great financial fortune and entrée into some pretty fancy worlds, much like Mapplethorpe’s work moved him up to higher and higher levels of NYC’s art and social strata. (Recently my friend sent me a picture of himself hanging out with Lady Gaga in Paris). My friend, like Mapplethorpe, also wrestled with his sexuality, until at last he embraced it, eventually finding the man of his dreams and forming what now must be a decades long partnership.

As Smith eventually falls out of touch with Mapplethorpe, so I fell out of close touch with my friend. But how the stories of our youth came rushing back in as I read JK. I recalled many trips to NYC to see my friend, and more than a couple of parties he threw for me, introducing me to so many publishing industry folks he connected with long before the advent of FB. In doing so, he set me up for all sorts of assignments, including one that eventually led me to my first book contract.

I visited NYC a few weeks ago—I hadn’t been in years. I had a speech to give and made plans to spend one quick day there, not even stay overnight. I made no editor appointments, scheduled only lunch with my friend Elizabeth Royte. On a whim, I emailed my old friend to see if he could have coffee, but I hadn’t given advance warning of my visit and he was on deadline. Still, I wandered the streets with him in one pocket, and Smith and Mapplethorpe in the other, our respective coming-of-age friendships separated by two decades, overlapping nonetheless.

I wandered into McNally’s bookstore in SoHo, and picked up that second copy of Just Kids I mentioned. It was a gift for my young friend Sam—I’d given my own copy to my son. Sam and Henry met when they were in high school. They dated, and then they stopped. They kept their friendship and theirs is a bond at least as strong as Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s, as mine and my friend’s. They share a passion for art, music, fashion. They love New York the way I never could—except vicariously through Smith’s writing. Sam is setting off to pursue a modeling contract. Henry is getting ready to go on tour again with a band based in Brooklyn. Though they are pursuing these dreams twenty years after my friend and me, and forty years behind Smith and Mapplethorpe, I see more parallels than not.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest pull of JK for me, the very thing Smith wanted it to be: the tale of the sort of friendship some of us are lucky enough to have, that begins in our brutal youth and carries over and transcends and—even when death or distance ends it—remains a huge part of who we are.

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