“‘Patti,’ he drawled, ‘you got famous before me.’”
With no offense meant to Patti Smith, this isn’t a book I would’ve read without a lot of prompting. I don’t know her music, and before the book, knew very little about her as a person apart from the fact that she recently had an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My friend Katie had enthusiastically suggested Just Kids, and I added it to my mental to-read list but honestly the list is ever-growing and it was probably near the bottom of the pile. Then Katie went and got it for me for my birthday which was lovely, so what was I to do but crack it open?
The book was more accessible than expected – I don’t want to say better because it’s not like I expected it to be bad. Smith writes about her early and mainly pre-fame years in New York, with an exceedingly large and impressive cast of characters some of whom I recognized (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed) and some of whom I thought I maybe should but certainly did not – including Robert Mapplethorpe, the other “kid.”
It was hard to keep track of everyone, and I eventually resigned myself to letting names fly by, knowing I’d read them earlier but with no memory of the context or importance. But in a way that mild confusion lent itself to the whirlwind lifestyle that comes across in Just Kids, particularly during Smith’s time at the Chelsea Hotel, itself a sort of character (and one I did recognize thanks in large part to Leonard Cohen). The people she meets and the situations she finds herself in are almost unbelievable, like being tasked with taking a distraught Janis Joplin home after a night of partying, and consoling her with a song.
So while half the time I couldn’t remember who did what when or how they fit into the story previously, it didn’t really matter because the book’s real strength was in the complex devotion between Smith and Mapplethorpe, and the elegant prose that demonstrates her poetic roots. And despite the fact my life has very little in common with Smith’s, and I wavered between being baffled and impressed by her circumstances, there were certain moments of connection. During a brief stint as an actress for instance, Smith finds herself being handed a syringe for her speed-shooting character and told “Just shoot water, you know, pull a little blood out of your arm.” She says she “almost fainted. I couldn’t even look at the syringe, let alone put it in my arm.” As someone who has actually fainted just watching my sister get a needle, I’m with her.
In the end, Just Kids kind of fit in with the whole point of this blog – even though it’s set just eight hours south of me, Smith lived in a 60s and 70s New York City that is totally outside my realm of experience, and I enjoyed the opportunity to explore it.