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A Review of Poet & Rocker Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” Memoir

July 19, 2010
By Guest Writer Ron Wells

“Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.”
—-James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Just Kids is Patti Smith’s portrait of the artist as a young woman. It is written with style and grace, but most of all, it is written with love.
Love for Robert Mapplethorpe, and a love of life that digs deeply into the flame that lights her soul as an artist and a human being.

Einstein said there may be as many as 16 dimensions. Patti Smith sings that she moves in a different dimension. Her book, Just Kids, chronicles her life and the life of Robert Mapplethorpe as they lived lives as intertwined souls, each one on paths and in dimensions as unpredictable as anything one might imagine.

The book is a celebration, and an eulogy, for a time and place in which she and Robert transcended their surroundings to fly into the golden sphere of art. A time and place that seems centuries old and never to return. A time and place where trinkets and polaroid snapshots were as important as Van Gogh’s paints.

I had put off reading the book for months. Each day I would come home and Patti and Robert would patiently stare up at me from Coney Island knowing that I would come to them in my own time. For I was ending eight years of continuous work with two autistic boys who had grown from angry, low achieving students, to become honors graduates from high school. It had been a long journey for all of us, and I had put off reading Patti until the time was right. Until the power and satisfaction of achievement, which had wrung me dry of all physical and emotional stamina, could be set aside  so as to dance in another dimension.

And so on a trip to Portland, Oregon, while sitting in the historic Benson Hotel, Room 1037, I gave myself over to Patti and Robert. And when I read her forward, “I was asleep when he died,” I knew this would be a deeply personal and moving experience, not only for Patti, but for me as well. It was silent in the room and a calm came over me. I had understood much about Patti previously, but I knew this journey would take me even further, not only into her world, but into the world of art. I was finally ready.

And so I turned the pages and began to read.

Each day I would read just a few pages. The prose was so easy, so comforting, so matter-of-fact, it drew me further and further in. I read slowly, carefully, not wanting to hurry the experience. Like the years she and Robert spent together, I read as if on the journey.

In the afternoon, I would wander the streets and parks of Portland, watching the children play in the fountains, the homeless try to pass the time, the men and women walking arm in arm and talking of great things and unsolved mysteries. In the evening I would go to the remarkable Portland Blues Festival and glory in all that it had to offer, after which I would wander the darkened streets of Portland and give myself over to it’s quiet, laid back vibe of a big city trying to be small.

And then I would return to Patti and Robert. The flow of her words settled me, flowed within me like a slow moving, crystal clear stream. Her writing seemed so effortless and graceful, so certain as she moved from New Jersey to New York on a quest to be an “artist.”

Each tale seemed so unlikely, so improbable, the possibility of her ever reaching her goal seemed a long shot in the extreme. Her meeting Robert was as unlikely as everything else, and yet here they were–lovers, friends, humans in quest of the elusive goal of becoming artists. Each day I wondered as I read, why did these two not end up like the majority of other artists, just golden leaves gliding to the ground from trees when fall comes, and then disintegrating into dark and broken dreams crushed under by the feet of people who do not even notice them.

And yet, onward they both went. Searching out thrift stores for beads and trinkets to convert into masterpieces. As they wandered in and out of city streets and apartments, they met others who came and went and showed them sights and sounds they might not otherwise have imagined.

Patti’s prose captures it all, yet It never draws attention to itself. It is a highly unlikely story, simply told. Pure. Innocent. Profound. I read and never once did I not feel my soul surrender to her soft, quiet voice, bringing me solace and peace.

She drops names like wild colors on a canvas, but never to glorify herself. Rather, she tells us these names to track the influences, the guides, lost and found, whom she and Robert read about or met on the roads they traversed as they each played a role in lifting the other up and pushing them onward to experiment, soar, and reach for the tiny blue star, even by way of a necklace passed back and forth to remind them of who they were, and who they were to each other.

Each night, or early morning as the case may be, I feel asleep with her words floating in my unconsciousness like an angel’s kiss, a gentle touch of grace and hope.

If Portland embraced my spirit and lifted me up with its skateboarders, roving musicians, and river of tranquility, then Patti and Robert met me each night with a whispered, “Welcome back. Come with us”

And I surrendered easily to them.

I laughed out loud when Bobby Neuwirth asked Patti, as she left a room in the Chelsea hotel, “Where did you learn to walk like that?” and she turned and answered, “From watching “Don’t Look Back.’”

Jimi and Janis crossed her path, and eventually even the godlike Dylan came to see her, probably wanting to know how she knew about his dog.

She writes of her quest to go to Ethiopia which never happened, but her trip to see Arthur Rimbaud  and Jim Morrison in Paris which did.

Lines from songs come to life as she explains about the Wild Boys and how “Land” came about.

She watches as her friend/lover/soulmate leaves her for a man after her and Robert’s years of struggle, but there is no jealousy. They could part only because they knew they would never be apart. Robert and Patti are, were, forever more shall be, one soul. He may love another man, and she may marry someone else, but their union is bound in time and space and stars and necklaces and works of art. Look at the cover of “Horses.”

She is honest on more than one occasion as she talks of quitting, of losing confidence in her quest and in herself. She does not glorify herself. She, like all of us, just shoulders on from dead end street to tree lined boulevard. The roads change, but the journey is always on-going. To paraphrase Norman MacClean, “All good things come by way of grace, grace comes by way of art, and art does not come easily.” Patti and Robert were living examples of that.

Her honesty is on display at parties that she doesn’t feel comfortable at, parties which Robert loved, and so she went with him. The back and forth of their lives always a shared experience.

When the end came, it was almost like a sad fairy tale, and yet one recognizes that in great literature, death must always be present. The ending of life of one character necessary to elevate the lives of the others. Robert died, allowing Patti to sing their song, write their words, tell their story.

When I finished reading their story it was at 1:10 AM on a Tuesday. I held the book and looked at the cover photo of Patti and Robert. I was glad I was not holding a Kindle, or some other kind of reading machine. I wanted to hold the book with the Fournier typeface that had been carefully chosen by Mary Austin Speaker, and the purple hardcover with the initials PS and RM engraved amidst two intersecting perpendicular lines. The lines each going off in infinite directions and yet crossing at just that one point.

I thought, maybe someday this book, a signed first edition, will end up in one the few old, remaining dusty used bookstores where some hungry artist will dig it out of a pile and understand it’s value, so that she may sell it in order to buy food or materials for her art. Wouldn’t that be nice. Patti would definitely understand.

As I boarded the light rail to the airport on that Tuesday morning, I knew they would someday try to make a movie out of this book, and they would fail. This story is too intimate in its telling, too infinite in its reach, to ever come alive on the silver screen. No one would believe these two characters, no matter how great the actors. The story is too far fetched. Too glorious to be told in any medium beside that of a book.

As the train sped along, I realized that Einstein was right: there are many more dimensions then we are aware of, and Patti Smith had just taken me to one of these. A dimension of love and lust and creativity and loss, and one in which the impossibility of art actually happens.

I smiled as I thought of her words, “For art sings of God, and ultimately belongs to him.”

“Beautiful. Impalpable. Imperishable,” wrote Joyce.

“Americans, why do you not honor your poets?” said the Frenchwoman to Patti.

I can answer that question–we do. For this telling is my way of honoring Patti Smith. A singer. A poet. An artist.

She moved me in a different direction. She moved me in a different dimension. Words came like dreams that had become like leaves, sprouting on trees in spring, announcing rebirth. And thus did her words help me to be reawakened to all the seas of possibilities, to be reborn if you will.

Thanks Ron for writing this review and sharing it with us!

For more poetry, catch the Monday Poetry Train!

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