Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti Smith Book ReviewThis 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!

Patti Smith. Cover of Album 'Horses'
P. Smith. Album cover ‘Horses’. By Robert.

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 WarholJimi 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 Smith Robert Mapplethorpe
Patti and Robert

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

My best birthday gift ever!

1018 S. Oakley (my address when in Chicago) had its own wonderful ways of going about things! Birthdays was one such occasion when all would try to bring to fore our creative sides (whether present or not), and make it memorable for the birthday boy or the birthday girl.

It was now mid November and we didn’t have any birthday for some time to come. Chicago snow and daylight only for a few hours wasn’t a pleasant experience altogether! On top of it, the impending exams in December and project deadlines for something – familiar to me only as coffee until a few months back – Java was cruel! I spent nights in the computer lab struggling and would be back in the wee hours of the day. Thanks to the UIC”red car” service , which would drop us to and fro to the lab in a usually in a snow filled campus! My life started and ended with assignments, and fatigued, I’d be back home. Prajna (pronounced as Prugg-yaa), my roomie, would usually open the door for me; she’d be the one who would be awake those days. On asked why she was up so late, she would have a one liner “We are working on Bhushans resume!”. She and Bhushan ( one from the gang of four boys staying upstairs) would be quietly working on the laptops as I walked past her room. It was relieving to see not the whole world was sleeping as I burnt the midnight oil.  Also, when you keep out of the “den”, you don’t quite know whats happening. I’d see saw people talking to one another on phone, discussing something, running from here to there and giggling, and would stop as soon as I was in the picture. Well, I do miss out on a lot of stuff being always out doing my assignments, I told myself. “Its not their fault after all”.

December set in. My last exam was on the 4th and I was preparing for this tough one the night before. Incidentally, 4th was also my birthday. As the ritual would go, my roomies and friends from upstairs came over at 12:00, got a nice little mini-cake, sang for me and then offered to leave me with my books. That was certainly nice of them. But this birthday was not like the “tradition”… Cut the cake, smear it on the birthday girl or boy (irrespective), smear anything and everything (that fell within the range of semi-solids and liquids) that they lay their hands on in the kitchen. (On realizing that the aftermath is horrifying for those who have to then clean the mess on the floor and all over, we jointly decided to change all this for the better; we now took the “target” to the washroom tub!!).

Suren(friends love him as someone you can always rely on) would be as if waiting to lead this ceremony with all his passion and energy, Vishal (an artist, amateur guitarist and singer, has a winsome smile) would be the official photographer, Athiya (one who loves to play pranks, the “brands” girl, completely ignorant of how she is loved by one and all) would be ruthlessly on the forefront, Smrithi (cook, passion for shoes, youngest and the wittiest) would be taking a sneak peak at “horrifying” masquerade, Prajna (the “social magnet” , singer, foodie, the tallest kid) would be busy cutting the cake into pieces, eating some (oh yeah! she lohhhhves cakes) pumping enthusiasm in the whole act while Bhushan (man of ideas, who remains chilled come what may) would ensure everything good and not-so-good is going smoothly! Once the birthday victim is fully drenched to the hearts content of the crowd, he was allowed to take a shower and come out of the “shock”. Till such time the rest would settle as if after a hard days work and relish the cake. Once the ‘victim’ was out, he was showered with gifts (literally so; all at Oakley believe in showing love through giving gifts!! We always went overboard! ). There is usually a wine bottle that the birthday boy/girl has to finish (yes- well s/he is expected to finish the whole one) and then give an emotional speech for the rest to enjoy. My brother Shomit was known to be an expert at instigating and emotionally blackmailing the victims into getting emotional. Getting overwhelmed with emotion and tears showing was an unsaid sign of great “success”!

There are so many more characters: Ram (karate kid + biker) , Sarang (artist and an organic chemist) , Nikhil (organizing personified) , Sachin (musician pursuing chemistry) , Yogeshwar (the philosopher) , Yogendra (Shah Rukh Khan die hard loyalist + Ph.D) , Kaustubh (nothing common about him), Tanu (deal-er: expert at looking and availing online deals)… I will talk about them in my upcoming book ;)!

So this night, I felt was certainly and I went back to preparing for the next days exam. I came back home the next day and what do I see: there is a gang of friends gathered at home. It was my Nth birthday (no: I am not talking about the value of ‘N”), and I was given gifts corresponding to the number… I was certainly shocked and happy at the same time. The last gift was certainly the best gift ever; they acknowledged pretty much everything what I was and what i liked, that I loved being photographed, my passion for my favorite male actors including the Big B, closeness to my family and all the past moments with this Oakley gang since the first time I landed in the US! And they did it beautifully by making this:

Those nights of resume-making were actually of making this video. Prajna and Bhushan had started to work on it days back downloading the software to make the video, thinking about the theme, selecting the songs and working with more than 300 photos!! They would steal my pictures from my laptop when I was not around and that’s when the running about and giggling used to happen which I couldn’t understand! I can’t thank them enough for the thought and for making me feel so special!

The world has noticed and loved the term “head fake” ever since Randy Pausch used it in  “The Last Lecture“. There is a head fake here: this little video actually isn’t about me; its about ALL of us and all about those moments we had together which have become lifelong memories to cherish!

We all have moved out now, but the spirit of 1018 S. Oakley lives on!

Home away from home…

Before coming to the US as a student, I came over to visit my brother Shomit for a few months. The idea was that I get a good change. Having come here I got introduced to his gang of friends- Oakley Mitra Mandal (OMM) as they called themselves-  and a whole new world full of best things! This group of people had dreams in their eyes and a strong bond that would never weaken. Amidst restaurants and movies, chai parties and philosophy, discussions and dreams that would go on until the wee hours of the day, I found myself rejuvenating! One of the best times of my life, I treasure those days and am full of gratitude to my brother and OMM. This was written then as a parting gift dedicated to OMM:

I flew from home, to a land unknown

To my brother, on a foreign shore

Did not know what was in store

Just to switch off, and nothing more


Here the buildings kissed the sky

They were ambitions and dreams, in concrete

Manifesting themselves so tall and high

Showing how you could, if you really wanna fly


I came to not to a house, but a family

The houses albeit four, but one home really

Every pair of eye exuded warmth and ardor

And the smiles for me always, I treasure truly.


We met often in evenings for coffee

And talked and talked and wined and dined

I relished every bit, for, from worry I would flee

‘N talked till it was dawn again, and again time for tea


With them I danced, with them I played

They showed me the colors of life; they didn’t let ‘em fade

They made me feel special, in their ways so grand

I knew how Alice must’ve felt in wonderland


I had my share of bliss, and its time to leave

My heart fills with gratitude for Shomit, more than I grieve

And for his gift of you all to me to cherish

A memory of my best days that would never perish


When in someday of my life ahead, I wonder

After a long day’s work, somewhere across seas yonder

I would want to run back to you all, alone

When they say, “baby its time to go home”…



~ Sonali  for OMM. (Oct 2004)