Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we sat down with Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, which tells of Smith’s formative years as an artist in 1970s NYC alongside photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith’s book is a tribute to a unique friendship and a revealing peek at Patti Smith before she became the “Godmother of Punk.” Read on to see the Book Club’s reaction to Just Kids.
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Henry Hauser, Staff Writer
— Megan Ritt, Senior Editor
For Next Month:
Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson
Matt Melis (MM): Just Kids was really the coming-of-age story of a couple of young artists—punk rock icon Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe—whose lives ran parallel for a couple years in 1970s New York. I thought it was beautifully written; in an age where every celebrity writes a book about his or her life, I appreciate reading someone who actually has a way with words without leaning on a ghostwriter. It also bucked several trends that tend to dull or poison many memoirs. However, I didn’t feel really emotionally invested in Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story until near the very end, and that frustrated me.
Megan Ritt (MR): That’s really interesting, because I had the total opposite reaction. I had heard good things about the book and was excited to read it, and when I picked up a copy, I saw Joan Didion quoted on the inside jacket and was like, “Yep, for sure.” The whole time I was reading it, I was very enamored by both her prose style and the storytelling. There were some stylistic choices she made that I wasn’t super crazy about, but I was so in love with her voice that I got over it.
Henry Hauser (HH): How the hell did Just Kids ever win a National Book Award? This was a huge disappointment, especially given the hype and accolades. I found the format to be really predictable – that hackneyed biographical framework of birth, boredom, escape, struggle, success. I found the narrative voice to be totally flat and wooden, which was really surprising considering her bold and provocative poems and songs.
How many memoirs have we read where the character starts off in a stifling town with an unsatisfying childhood, yearns to escape, finally does, meets difficult circumstances, overcomes them, and finally becomes the titan they yearn to be? You know, give me a fucking break.
MR: I feel that on the one hand, but on the other, what I thought was really interesting was that I had heard this story before, except that she turns out to be Patti Smith. I felt like reading her experience and the people she knew and her friends… she feels like the kind of person you could’ve known in real life, except that at the end she’s Patti Smith.
MM: To her credit, although she takes us through these predictable phases or hoops that Henry pointed out, she also doesn’t dillydally, in youth for instance. She moves the story along as she deems necessary. She doesn’t fall into that memoir trap of I was born on this day, my father did this for a living, my mother did this, I heard music for the first time, and it was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Even if she’s plugging into a common formula, she doesn’t allow it to overtake the story she wants to tell.
HH: Another thing that really repulsed me was her cliché and high-handed language. There was one point where she declared, “I have lived for love. I have lived for art.” Literally, I slapped my forehead and had to put the book down for two weeks. Pure trite. There were way too many pages devoted to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe; sometimes I felt like I was reading his memoir, rather than Patti Smith’s. But that’s not to say that the book didn’t have its highlights—especially if you’re already a fan of Patti and Robert—but I don’t think that it stands up on its own two legs.
MM: Well, it is Just Kids and not Just Kid. She’s telling their story. That’s what she set out to do. But you bring up the point that at times it feels more like Robert’s memoir. Is there not enough Patti Smith in here for you?
HH: I definitely felt that way. Many of her strongest songs and poems are mentioned only in passing. Like “Piss Factory”–there’s only a paragraph on it! That’s one of her best songs, and it only gets a quick, cursory glance. And there were pages upon pages of Patti trying to find the right apartment for an artistic, bohemian lifestyle.
MR: It depends on what you come to the book looking for. When I read the book, I was a Patti Smith virgin. I knew who she was, but I came to it with no frame of reference from her music. For me, that wasn’t really a turnoff. I feel like she’s coming at it from the perspective of readers knowing her music already, so she doesn’t really need to talk about it a ton.
I agree that she’s relatively passive through a lot of it, but I felt that her talent was sort of gestating in a way. I think she feels obligated to talk for Robert, because he’s not here to tell his own story. That might be part of the reason why she does overcompensate in some places. She really wants to get that part of it out there. She’s doing that with the understanding that the reader knows who she is and knows something about her career, so she’s trying to give you the stuff that you don’t know.
MM: I also wasn’t necessarily turned off by Smith omitting most of the Patti Smith we all know. Like Henry said, if you’re a Patti Smith fan, you’re curious to get inside a song like “Piss Factory” or an album like Horses—the type of record that can make you rethink music. But that’s not what you’ll get here. And I think it takes a certain amount of courage to omit what your audience would be most familiar with—definitely most interested in—because that wouldn’t have served the story that she wanted or needed to tell. Like it or not, this isn’t the story of the “Godmother of Punk,” though she might argue it actually is.
HH: A memoir is a story of someone’s life, and when you purchase a memoir based on who’s written it, the assumption is you’re going to hear the story of that person’s life. That’s the person most capable of telling the story. Now, if the author is seeking to memorialize a lost friend, that’s something different.
MR: From everything I had read about the book, I didn’t assume it was going to be Patti Smith’s whole “jam,” so much as, Here is a certain point in my life. I actually liked that she didn’t talk much about being a rock star. When I started listening to Horses, I think I had a really weird and almost unique experience with this book because I hadn’t listened to the record [Horses] before I read it. I think I finished the book a solid couple of weeks ago and actually just got Horses yesterday. I felt almost like I knew her, like I could’ve been one of the people she knew at the time, thinking that Patti’s just this regularly person, and then you hear the record and think, “Oh my god, she’s amazing.” Whereas almost every other person who read this book came at it from the other perspective of “Patti Smith is an amazing musician. Let’s read her book.”
MM: Before this conversation, both of you made mention of the many cameos found in Just Kids and of the incessant name-dropping.
MR: One thing that I found a little startling was that she’s very nonlinear with the narrative at times, like chronologically linear, but then she’ll say, “Oh, Robert’s making necklaces,” and she’ll spend two paragraphs on that. Then she’ll talk for another paragraph about how this other guy made her try on skirts or something else completely different. And I keep thinking she’ll pick up a strand and run with it, but she really pops around in that middle third of the book, which is where a lot of the cameos come in. The chronological style was a little goofy to me. On the other hand, it seems like that was really a kind of active time, and I think her decision to include all the cameos really… I mean, Henry already feels like she left too much out. She’s living in the Chelsea Hotel. She knows Jimi Hendrix. She’s gonna talk about it.
MM: I would’ve name-dropped Jimi Hendrix in my memoir, too.
MR: If she never said, Oh, p.s. I hung out with Janis Joplin… That’s the kind of stuff people wanna know. I feel like if she had held back on that, it really would’ve felt like she didn’t give us the whole thing. I think Henry would be feeling like he was missing more than he is now.
HH: To me, the icons and celebrities come in and out of focus, but very few of them add anything of substance. I think she really would’ve benefited from scaling back the number of players and probing deeper into each personality.
MR: That’s fair. I can get behind that. Except for Gregory Corso, Joplin, and Hendrix, I can’t even remember anybody else’s name.
MM: That Chelsea Hotel lifestyle seemed like this swirl of time where people, whose names we now know, were always coming and going. So, to have that person show up for a paragraph and never appear again, it almost seemed like it mirrored or reflected the times.
HH: You mention the Chelsea Hotel, and I have to say that’s where my favorite line of the memoir sprung up: “Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses.” I thought Leonard Cohen had written the last great, poetic line about the Chelsea Hotel, but I was wrong. Patti Smith did.
MM: A redeeming moment for you, Henry?
HH: There were other aspects I found powerful as well. Patti’s perspective on the purpose of art was tight and authentic. It should come as no surprise that Patti doesn’t have a lot of patience for derivative art. She’s right on the money when she writes that it’s “indulgent to add to the glut unless one offers illumination.” This ties in really well with her urge to produce “something that nobody else has,” which is reflected in her unique and deeply personal music and poetry. That elevates Just Kids to a passing grade.
MR: And I think there’s also a certain amount of her poetry sneaking in there. The Didion liner notice is spot-on for me. I’m a huge Joan Didion fan, and Smith reminds me a great deal of Didion stylistically—the languid, long sentences. The poetry sneaking in there. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely mine.
Patti and Robert
MM: We have to talk some about Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which is at the heart of Just Kids. One thing I admired about this book is that we get to see a male/female relationship different from the romantic one shoved down our throats all the time. They started as lovers, yes, but their roles in each other’s lives morphed into friends, caretakers, parental figures, patrons, cheerleaders, even muses. Just like Smith spoils the expectation that a Patti Smith memoir will focus on her punk rock career, I like that this book ultimately shows us a different type of bond between man and woman. I still love that line of Robert’s that Smith repeats several times: “Nobody sees things like us, Patti.” Yes, it’s something you say when you’re 20ish and cringe about later on, but it’s still a lovely sentiment.
MR: I really appreciated the story being framed in that way, because she starts with the phone call [about Robert being on his deathbed] and then gets into bed with her husband. So, at the beginning of the book, you know she and Robert are in some sort of relationship, but it’s not going where you think it’s going. And to trace their whole story backwards and come up to that point was really interesting, and I think I would have a hard time being that honest about both the good times and bad times with previous relationships of mine. I wonder if any of it has been colored by the passing of time or if maybe they just had a really magical relationship, which is possible. It was interesting to watch this relationship start and weave into this great, big thing and then change into, like Matt says, something totally different and not what we expect to happen, but end in this unique kind of friendship.
HH: My issue is that I think Mapplethorpe is such bullshit. It’s hard for me to take Patti’s obsession with his creativity to heart. His photography does nothing for me. It’s just densely rendered black-and-white pictures of dicks and tits—what’s the big deal? This is decades and decades after European artists were doing the exact same thing. The fact that he’s an American living in NYC doesn’t make him special.
MM: I came into this book knowing a fair bit about Patti Smith and nothing about Robert Mapplethorpe. And what I said earlier on—about how I didn’t feel emotionally invested in this book until very late—goes back to the fact that I just never really gave a damn about Robert through much of it. And I don’t think that’s because I didn’t know of him going in. As much as her prose make me care about what she’s going through, her writing just never makes me really care about him; I feel that for all she knew about him, there are essential pieces of Robert she just can’t offer me here. I never quite understand him.
I did start caring about him, though, and that moment occurred near the end of the book (251 pages in) before he got sick. Smith describes Robert posing her and shooting her for that iconic cover of Horses. And afterwards she writes, “When I look at it now [the Horses cover], I never see me. I see us.” And that was the moment where I not only understand her but feel with her, too. The bond, for them, was the art and the struggle together to become artists. And whether or not we think Mapplethorpe had much merit as a photographer, she believes that without that time spent together, she wouldn’t have gone on to do the work that we adore. But this moment happens so very, very late, and I don’t feel like I can take that feeling and project it back across all the pages that come before.
MR: Again, I had the total opposite experience. And I didn’t know anything about Robert before I started reading either. I totally got behind it, though. I was on an airplane when I got to that line, and I started crying. That’s such a famous picture. We see it and think, “Oh, there’s a picture of Patti Smith.” But when she sees it, that’s not what she sees. Maybe just having had the experience of dating people who create art and knowing people who create art… you just feel intrinsically like that person is doing something of value or something interesting, whether or not they turn out to be someone like, say, Jimi Hendrix. But I was totally behind it. I really loved Robert.
MM: That photo shoot for Horses is a beautiful moment. We see the Patti Smith we know her as while also receiving the Patti she gives us through this story of her and Robert.
HH: I understand what you’re saying; if Patti hadn’t known Mapplethorpe, then she wouldn’t have become the Patti Smith we all admire. But she didn’t develop this theme throughout her story. I feel like it’s supposed to be the cherry on top, but instead of an ice cream sundae we’re served a bread sandwich.
MR: She’s sleeping in the park and going on dates with creepy guys just for dinner, and it’s Robert who says to keep writing. It’s Robert who picks up her poems off the floor and tells her she needs to take better care of her work. It’s Robert who always is encouraging her to work on stuff. It almost seems like, for a lot of the story… I’m reading, and my boyfriend keeps asking, “Is she playing music yet?” And I’m like, “No, she doesn’t even have a guitar. She had one, and then she hocked it or something…”
HH: She doesn’t play a song until, like, 250 pages into it.
MR: Yeah, but I feel like all of that had to happen in order for her to end up where she ends up. And a lot of that happening is her relationship with Robert. I think she wants to be an artist, but she really doesn’t have that artistic process, the way he does, until she sees him doing it a lot and practices with him and ends up doing a totally different thing with it. But I feel a lot of that hard experience and young experience and not-starving-to-death experience comes through her relationship with Robert. So, I see him really intrinsically linked to the story. It’s really interesting that we had such different experiences there.
HH: It seemed to me that she was trying to fit her relationship with Robert a bit too neatly into a Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo framework.
MR: I’m thinking of that line from The Watchmen right now, where Sally Jupiter says something like, “The past, even the grittier parts of it, just get shinier and shiner.” I feel like there’s maybe some of that happening in Just Kids.
MR: The language was poetic. She had a unique story to tell, and I’ve never read a book quite like this one before. It’s a memoir of a relationship and my favorite book of the year so far. GRADE: A
HH: I found it disappointing, but with some bright spots. Her descriptions of the NYC art scene and her philosophy on creativity were both clear highlights. But I couldn’t stand the slow pace, predictable structure, and deadpan storytelling.
And what happened to Patti Smith’s stinging sense of class-consciousness? She basically romanticizes scrapping for meals in NYC. How is this the same person that wrote “Piss Factory”? I’m going to have to quote a lyric: “Too goddamned grateful to get this job/ To know they’re getting screwed up the ass.” Where’s that Patti Smith? That’s the artist I wanted to read about.
MM: There are times where those struggles feel romanticized. But there are also times where, for instance, she describes the pains of hunger winning out. Or the moments with her father. He’s the person she talks with about how the world works, politics, and what she hopes for in that regard. Nobody else in the book seems remotely interested in talking to her about those things. So, I think you do see this Patti share some thoughts that are potentially leading in that direction. It’s not totally lacking that. But I agree that it’s far from the focus.
HH: I’d think her circumstances would lead just about anyone to be afraid – of starving, of being homeless, etc. But Patti never conveyed that fear and desperation. It was all tainted by her knowledge that one day everything was going to work out. I just didn’t feel an emotional connection. A memoir is really supposed to be a story of a life as it’s being lived, as opposed to an autobiography, which is a reflection back on one’s life. I feel like Patti Smith attempted to straddle the line by doing both at once, with Just Kids falling on its ass. GRADE: C-
MR: I think that’s the essential conflict, though. If you want Patti Smith to talk about what her life was like 30 years ago, she’s going to… I’m sure at the time, she would’ve told a very different story. I have to say, though, there is some charm in some of these moments. I couldn’t love Allen Ginsberg more than I do after reading about him trying to pick her up, thinking she was a boy. That’s goddamned adorable, and I don’t care how hungry or sad she was. That’s magical. I agree with you in some ways, Henry, that some parts are probably romanticized, but there are parts of it that are romantic, even during the desperate times. She lived in the Chelsea Hotel, you know?
MM: I think that’s the first time a debate ever broke out while we were giving grades. I thought there was an unspoken agreement of a ceasefire.
Once again, though, beautifully written and a very unique relationship presented. I just needed to understand that relationship much sooner in the book, and while she can tell this story better than anyone else can, I’m not sure that I ever really came to know Robert—a necessity if this book was really going to shine for me. GRADE: C+