By Rhiannon McGovern
Escapism has always been important to me when looking for a book to read, and I’m sure most people would agree that it’s one of the main reasons we do read, especially in the backdrop of the last couple of years. Recently, despite being an avid fiction reader, I decided to turn to non-fiction for a change in the hopes that it would cure my craving for something more raw and powerful.
I’d seen Just Kids recommended by many friends and strangers alike, with each reader promising that I’d love it. After finishing it, to say I agree feels like the grossest understatement.
Before reading, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical; I worried that the book would fit into a stereotype I have in my head of celebrity autobiographies – that most are simplified accounts of living with privilege and are often out of touch. No, that’s not to say that those in the limelight don’t have problems of their own, but, as with all books of this genre, I was nervous that it wouldn’t be something I could resonate with. But I was wrong.
Instead of self-interested ramblings, what I got was something so rich and captivating, a heart-warming portrait of friendship and the life of two artists growing up in New York in the 1960s and 70s. Patti Smith’s memoir follows her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and the sacrifices both made for their art. From meeting Robert on her first day in the Big Apple to their last days together as his life is tragically cut short by AIDS, Smith documents life from anonymity to stardom, from living on the streets to mixing with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.
I went into reading knowing very little about Smith – I had a vague idea of her influence on rock ‘n’ roll but didn’t fully understand where her place was in it. Regarding Mapplethorpe, I was, ashamedly now, completely unfamiliar with him and his work. But not to worry – Just Kids caters to readers who are strangers to both, loyal fans and everyone in between, even occasionally providing photographs and letters from the time that only adds to the intimacy of the story.
Whilst reading, Smith’s devotion to art thus far shines through, her writing so lyrical that her longstanding career as a poet goes without saying. Whether it’s her depictions of days spent at the Chelsea Hotel “like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe”, or her reciprocal muse-and-artist relationship with Robert: “he wrote me a note to say we could create art together and we would make it, with or without the rest of the world”, the author never fails to capture the grittiness of New York, the preciousness of friendship and the conviction to make art at all costs.
It feels easy to compare Patti Smith’s work to the style of Joan Didion and Eve Babitz, and I would recommend Just Kids to those who are looking to depart from the sun-roasted setting of California and get a taste of life in the East at a similar time.
Above all, it is the tender and beautiful portrayal of a relationship that transcends boundaries that makes Just Kids stand out and reminds us of the importance of cherishing those close to us. In documenting Robert’s last days, Smith reveals his one last request, that she tells their story to the world. “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply.” It seems only fair to say that Patti Smith delivered on what she set out to do, and far more than she likely imagined.