Just Kids

“In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos–the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, and yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to write and draw, but all of the manic activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.

Robert had little patience with these little introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.”

– pg. 65, Just Kids

One of the main messages I got out of reading this book is in the quote above. The other is that making art is HARD WORK. And if you wanna “make it” (however you definite that), you are gonna have to be willing to work hard. You have to commit to it. You have to be willing to take the time and do the work. You have to be willing to not break your Seinfeld chain.

A lot of this book is about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s suffering while living as young and broke aspiring artists in New York City in the late 60’s and early 70’s. OK, obviously it’s not all just suffering, but let me tell you, this book made me not want to complain about my life anymore. Especially when Smith writes about getting up at 6am to catch the train for her job at a bookstore, where she would work until 7pm and then walk home (to save subway fare), and THEN write poems on the typewriter or paint and draw till midnight or 1am. Repeat six days a week. I tell you, this makes me feel bad about coming home from work and complaining that I’m too pooped to write ****-ing cover letters for hippie writing residencies.

I really enjoyed the specific details that Smith evokes about moving to New York as a young broke kid: scavenging broken furniture off the sidewalk, stealing books. I especially liked the descriptions of Patti’s cooking specialties, like lettuce soup (dissolved chicken bouillon cubes with wilted lettuce leaves floating on top). Still, poverty is no joke, my friends. At one point Robert resorts to hustling–please, God, let me get financial aid in grad school so as to avoid such desperate measures.

Patti Smith is an excellent writer and deserves all the acclaim she’s gotten. Her language is poetic but never pretentious. She has this amazing way of putting these very complicated, intense ideas in simple sentences. One good example of this is the big quote chunk above; another is the last section about Robert’s death: “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? The pursuit is what burns most deeply.” (279) She also does an amazing job of structuring the book: she does a great job of balancing her story with Robert’s, especially in the first chapter about their childhoods. I always felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, and that she knew exactly what she wanted her book to be about. Basically, it’s a tribute–to youth, to Robert, to that initial excitement when you’re first getting hit by that artistic spark and drive.

Out of all the chapters, the one titled “Just Kids” (about their early days living in New York) was my favorite. The next one, “Hotel Chelsea” went on for a little too long for me. There were a lot of sections that felt like “oh, and then we went to this bar or this restaurant, where we met so-and-so person.” Some of these moments were pretty cool, like when Allen Ginsberg buys Patti a cheese and lettuce sandwich because he thinks she’s a skinny young boy and he’s trying to pick her up. Some of it could maybe be perceived as name-dropping (though I don’t think it is).

All these references to literary and rock-and-roll figures has a function, though: it drops us right in the middle of a very specific time and place. We’re in New York in the 70’s, where Andy Warhol’s groupies have catfights in the bar, Bob Dylan’s manager is a grinning flirt; the deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are news headlines and Charles Manson is the talk of the town. It did make me wonder what the contemporary version of this kind of intense immersion into an artistic network would be… I’m not sure if there is one. I certainly don’t see myself bumping elbows with Jonathan Franzen or those other boys if I move to New York.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I think my favorite thing about it is the compassion, love and tenderness that Smith shows to her younger self and Robert. She recognizes their youthful mistakes and naiveté while still being compassionate. They are, as the title says, just kids.

Reading this book reminded me of when I read Bob Dylan’s Chroniclesway back in early 2010 (two years ago, what?!). That book was what helped me decide to focus more on creating art, which led to me signing up for a writing class, which led to, well, a lot of other things. We’re still chuggin’ forward.

I’d like to end this blog post with another quote about being a youthful artist. Before that, I would like to say that for the record, I think my absolute favorite Patti Smith songs are “Gloria,” “Ain’t it Strange” and “Pissing in a River.”

“I don’t have a lot of advice to give. The one thing I would say to a young writer who wanted counsel is to be patient. Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in life, is your friend in writing. It is. If you can relax into time, not fight it, not fret at its passing, you will become better. You probably won’t be very good at the beginning, but you will become better, and eventually you may actually become good. But it doesn’t help to be afraid of time, or to measure yourself against prodigies like Conrad or Crane or Rimbaud. There’s always going to be somebody who did it better than you, faster than you, and you don’t want to make comparisons that will discourage you in your work. In fact, most fiction writers tend to graybeard their way into their best work.”

– Tobias Wolff, The Paris Review 2004

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Filed under art, books, music, non-fiction, review

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