Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Every girl should be introduced to Patti Smith at the age of 15. Overly literate, annoyingly "poetic," dirty, smelly, and tough and sexy as hell, she is neither the precociously perfect nor the pneumatic jailbait currently offered up as models of femininity. She's refreshing--and terrifying--because she is so imperfect.

Her unevenness and imperfections are part of what make "Just Kids" so enjoyable, not just from a fangirl POV, but also as a literary experience. There are maddening gaps in the story (what do you MEAN you didn't talk to Robert for all that time???), Patti's narration is completely unreliable, and there are times when you don't know who she's trying to convince--the reader or herself.

The book focuses on her young relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, a portrait of the artists as a young man and woman. Mapplethorpe is crucial to the Patti Smith-mythos, and her deep love and respect for him is evident and extremely moving. And yet. And yet, he can be a total ass to her and she just accepts it. Accepts that he blocked her from going to Ethiopia to search for Rimbaud--not because it is a ridiculously pretentious project (it is, but that's Patti), but because he's scared that she'll get eaten by hyenas (he's PROTECTING her get it? because she's an idiot.). Her fear for him while he's out hustling, skating the edges of a sexual underground (while still sleeping with her, FYI) doesn't stop him from doing shit.

Mapplethorpe isn't the only incredibly hot artistic genius who screws/over our affable Patti. Jim Carroll would rather shoot up. Sam Shepherd forgot to tell her she was married. Allen Lanier left her for long stretches to tour and fuck groupies. Her benign responses to such bad behavior speak to either extremely low expectations...or the unspoken crimes that she committed against them.

Ann Friedman has already written about Patti and creative ambition, and the evolution of her putting herself first is fascinating. For instance, when she decides to first smoke pot. No more good girl Patti waiting for Robert to get his shit together to go to Max's--she learns how to roll a joint so she can work, like an adult. She takes hash and goes to the piers with Mapplethorpe and ends up with "Horses." This is a long way from the woman who wrote, upon seeing Stieglitz's portraits of O'Keefe: "Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph."

It's shocking to me that Patti Smith, PATTI SMITH, didn't immediately see herself as THE poet, rock star, artist, and adventurer. And maybe the dirty secret is that she actually did, but the most bad-ass woman on the planet is still worried that you'll think she's stuck up or that she isn't good enough to just be herself.

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