Friday, November 19, 2010

"Now I know how Joan of Arc felt"

I read the first third or so of Patti Smith's Just Kids with increasing hardness of heart. I had thoughtlessly imagined I would love the book, but in fact I am not its ideal reader - I have never idealized Baudelaire and Rimbaud, I find Art irksome (as opposed to the hard yet playful discipline of craft or making things). Patti Smith seems to me to reside at the horrible intersection of the trajectories of Jim Morrison and Susan Sontag BOTH OF WHOM I LOATHE!

A good example of the sort of passage in the opening pages that just makes me shake my head and throw up my hands in temperamental disaffinity:
Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed.

It leads to each other. We become ourselves.

For a time Robert protected me, then was dependent on me, and then possessive of me. His transformation was the rose of Genet, and he was pierced deeply by his blooming. I too desired to feel more of the world. Yet sometimes that desire was nothing more than a wish to go backward where our mute light spread from hanging lanterns with mirrored panels. We had ventured out like Maeterlinck's children seeking the bluebird and were caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences.

Robert responded as my beloved twin. His dark curls merged with the tangle of my hair as I shuddered tears. He promised we could go back to the way things were, how we used to be, promising me anything if I would only stop crying.
Ugh! It is intolerable!

I stopped feeling so antagonistic around midpoint, though. There are glimpses even in the first third or so of a more appealing insight and self-awareness (the description of her own response to seeing Jim Morrison perform is spectacular - "I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence" - and I also love the notion of Robert Mapplethorpe having to purchase the porn magazines he used for his collages while they were still sealed and returning to their room at the Chelsea hotel to "unseal the cellophane with the expectation of Charlie peeling back the foil of a chocolate bar in hopes of finding a golden ticket"). A bit more of a sense of humor develops as Smith narrates the trials and tribulations of her early attempts to perform before a crowd (it is not one of the more humorous books I have ever read, however, and it compares very poorly in this and other respects to Keith Richards' autobiography - the main mention of Keith Richards here, I note in passing, is in the admittedly compelling yet depressing and perhaps inadvertently hilarious scene in which Smith attains social prominence in the Max's Kansas City circle by giving herself Keith Richards' haircut!).

Patti Smith is an artist of the body, that is what it comes down to - she expresses her frustration with writing ("it wasn't physical enough"), it is force of will and personal charisma that lead to her success as a musical performer (and I still think that the cover of Horses is a greater collaborative creation than anything on the album - in the 1920s she would have been an Isadora Duncan, she is that sort of innovator). She says elsewhere of Mapplethorpe "Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph" - this seems to me a fair description. But the love for Mapplethorpe and the way the book works as an elegy, these are very unusual and striking, I will grudgingly admit that I was won over by the end...


  1. Oh, thank goodness you liked it by the end! I have ordered Marianne Faithfull's autobiography from the library, after seeing reference in the interview. I figure it will take forever for Keith to arrive, so it will be a good interim read. In between indexing.

  2. From the brief excerpt in your post it seems that Ms. Smith may be a bit overly enamored at her own ability to turn a phrase. That said I did enjoy Horses and always thought the title cut was brilliant.

    With the death of Mr. Mapplethorpe and then her husband a few years later (the late Fred “Sonic” Smith – an original member of the MC5), she seems to have lived a bit of a dark, sad life.

    Oh, and as a Jim Morrison fan from the very beginning through visiting his grave at Père Lachaise – as Mr. Dylan once sang [you] “ . . pierced me to the heart” but I will try not to take it too personally.

  3. Very funny! First half of your post - exactly!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. This is a great reflection on what works and doesn't work in the book! My friend wrote a thoughtful review of the book back in December in which she noted the problem of Patti Smith writing her aura--that may be why the Horses cover has a force that her writing doesn't get at. There's a problem in mediating what was cool because of its fuzziness.

    "Patti Smith is often criticized for her pseudo-mysticism—for being the adult equivalent of an adolescent poet with a Tarot deck. In fact, Smith has virtually copywritten that myth; her universe, as constructed in this memoir, bursts with connections."

  5. Jenny, can you talk a bit about your anti-Sontag feelings?