This book gave me a lot of trouble because I was quite moved by it and so, very much wanted to talk about it, but feared just might spoil it (you will know why*). None of the approaches I took felt right, yet I could not abandon it. Ergo, this is a simple account of a few themes that ran through the compelling memoir of the poet, singer-songwriter and rock ‘n roll artist, Patti Smith.
Nostalgia. Barely twenty, penniless and unsure, but not without an intense desire to become an artist, Smith steps into New York City, then a petri dish for the counterculture of the 1960’s, with widespread use of recreational drugs, free sexual expression & exploration, psychedelic music, and the Beat generation giving way to the hippie culture. Once past my initial shock over their avant-garde lifestyle (credited entirely to the author’s honest and sober narration), I pictured those times in curious wonderment: the nobodies with the potential to be trailblazers; the weirdos, the drug addicts, the experimentalist; the searchers, the idealists, the artists… Those must have been interesting times!
The Chelsea Hotel, where, in a peculiar turn of events, Smith and her friend Robert start living. Known to be a haven for writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers and colorful personalities, famous and yet to be famous, one could trade art could for the room-rent. “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in The Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe“, she writes. At this point in the book there are several names mentioned, some known to me, others unknown: Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats, and a multitude of others that I googled as I encountered, only to get woefully intrigued by their life-stories. Some made it, the rest succumbed to drugs or AIDS, and never lived to see the times they were ahead of.
Patti and Robert. What will stay with me is the tender friendship Patti Smith shared with her lover for a while, and best friend forever, Robert Mapplethorpe. It is a beautiful thing to see how they really understood one another, not only as friends but also as artists. “Nobody sees as we do, Patti” Robert would say, and “whenever he said things like that, for a magical space of time, it was if we were the only two people in the world.“
Their relationship went through various definitions, but belonged to none. “We were evolving with different needs. I needed to explore beyond myself and Robert needed to search within himself.” With time Robert would discover and accept his homosexuality, and go on to become a famous (albeit controversial) photographer. Smith, a sketch artist and a poet, would finally find her niche and become a musician and the leader of her band ‘The Patti Smith Group’, and start a new life with her husband, Fred. Notwithstanding that, both of them would remain as close friends as they always were.
The last part was heart wrenching and yet there was a sense of innate beauty in its naked truth. Robert gets diagnosed with AIDS. For Patti (and for the reader who is now so invested in their lives), the idea of losing him is extremely unsettling. On his deathbed he wishes that she write their story.
Just Kids is Patti’s a fascinating and poignant tribute to their friendship. *There was something quietly private she tore apart and put out there for the world to read, and it feels like sacrilege to “review” it; one can just relate and respect and carry it in one’s heart. Of course, there is more to the book: Patti’s love for poetry and for poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, their times of struggle, their friends and their interesting journey in interesting times. It deserved 5 stars on my Goodreads.
I loved this excerpt from the epilogue ‘A note to the reader’ by the author:
“…There could be many stories I could yet write about Robert, about us. But his is the story I have told you. It is the one he wished me to tell and I have kept my promise. We were Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was the splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together. only Robert and I could tell it. Our story, as he called it. And having gone he left the task to me to tell it to you.“
Poem by Smith for Robert- who had the greenest of eyes- for his Memorial:
Little emerald bird Wants to fly away If I cup my hand Could I make him stay?
Little emerald soul Little emerald eye Little emerald soul Must you say goodbye?
All the things that we pursue All that we dream Are composed as nature knew In a feather green
Little emerald bird As you light afar It is true I heard God is where you are
Living in Farmington Hills, Michigan is peaceful. I do appreciate it against the backdrop of downtown Chicago, where I lived before moving here. Needless to mention Chicago and its restaurants and cuisines, cultures and cults, things-to-do and theaters, museums and galleries, art and architecture. No other city could charm me as much. Now the closest city to me is Detroit. I have never really frequented the place. I remember going to the city outskirts a few days back with my team at work. The eeriness of the abandoned buildings and vacant houses still haunt me. I particularly remember a huge building which seemed to have burned down long ago and never again saw life. In my mind Detroit was a collage of a riot ripped city, creepy buildings and not at all a place to visit, especially dusk onwards… until yesterday…
It was Friday evening and my enthusiastic host offered to take me to Detroit. I have always found him promoting the city. He once told me not to think that I have come to a “third world” section of the country! This evening we were to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) for the Friday Night Live, and it was a musical performance by Master Scots fiddler Alasdair Fraser with the pretty American cellist Natalie Haas.
From the outside DIA was a beautiful old building that was buzzing with warmth of art seekers within, contrasting starkly with the freezing whiteness of the Michigan snow that evening. We had some time before the performance, and we took a tour of the various sections filled with murals, sculptures and artifacts from long lost ages! I was amazed to see how time was captured in big and small glass boxes, like one catches flying butterflies in a little boxes. Each artifact stared back at my close curious look. In the silent background of the halls, they secretly came to life and whisper to me. Like a mysterious wizard, they held my hand and we flew back in time. I flew continent to continent, region to region, century to century and civilization to civilization… There seemed no hostile borders then, and it was a smooth sailing from Asia to Africa, Europe to America, orient to the occident. It was an unbroken and continuous diversity. It was enchanting! As we moved to the paintings section, I tried listening to what Pablo Picasso had to say through his portraits and roamed in Vincent van Gogh‘s flowers and landscapes, among many other great painters. And then I entered the Great Hall on Level 2, and looked up to find the ceiling as if crowded with countless stars twinkling at me! Here is a picture I found online in Derek Farr’s Flickr profile. Thanks Derek – this is the best of all pictures I searched on line (and hope you don’t sue me!!)
The musical performance was right in the Rivera Court. The north and south walls represents the races that shaped the American culture and Detroit’s work force of the auto and other industries like chemical, medical, pharmaceutical. The central panel shows the important operations in the production and manufacture of the engine and transmission of the 1932 Ford V8. The major panel of the south wall is devoted to the production of the automobile’s exterior.
By 7 pm, the Rivera Court had turned into a congregation of art admirers from the city. This evening’s performance was a result of the ‘reinvention of the musical marriage between big and small fiddles – a familiar feature of the music of the eighteenth century Scotland’. The artistes started “fiddling” with their instruments to compositions that took the audience across a couple of centuries during their 45-minute concert. The strings started to writhe in ecstasy as the bow struck them to instantly cast a spell on the crowd! The workmen on the walls busy making car parts too stopped working as the tunes hit the walls… The two-people orchestra was a wonderful experience! (Check out their performances here).
As we walked out, I felt coming out of a time machine. We were on Woodward Avenue now and drove past the magnificent Churches on either side of the road built by immigrants when they came to make the city their home, informed my host. I was awe-struck by the brilliant architecture each cathedral demonstrated. Quiet they stood as silent witnesses to the great rise and fall of an era called Detroit!
As we drove back, I was crowded with the thoughts about the city that was once one the most prosperous cities in the world! There was so much to know and learn about it, I thought. Something in me had changed. The Detroit that I had in my mind was different now. It left me with a strong desire to know more and discover the city all over again! Only if everyone of us did that, wouldn’t that restore the city’s past glory at least to some extent, I wondered as we zoomed past…
Life according to one of life’s truly gifted naturally born wafflers… an open diary of a Saffer in a different land... life in the greater Dublin & Leinster area. (Blogging since 2011) My quests fuel my dreams… my dreams fuel my quests!!