By Victoria Looseleaf
Poet, musician, voice of a generation. I’m not talking Bob Dylan, though he, too, is decidedly all of the above, but I speak of the one and only Patti Smith. A gorgeous love story, a heartbreaking elegy and, most of all, an artist’s primer, Just Kids was a breakout hit when it was published by Ecco earlier this year. And then, it snagged the 2010 National Book Award, a major coup on all counts (even Jonathan Franzen’s fabulous Freedom came up short in the fiction category), making Smith’s recently released paperback a must-have to put under the tree, the menorah, on the bookshelf, wherever.
In other words, get thee a copy and read it immediately. Smith is an artist nonpareil and I have been a fan since her debut album, Horses, which not only holds up, but continues to inspire. Smith has said that, in her penning of this stunner, she took several cues from literary autobiographies (and truly, how many of these exist today, in an era when the celebrity tell-little is worshipped by both publishers and a middle-brow public), books such as The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Genet’s The Thief’s Journal.
From the horse’s mouth: The inimitable Patti Smith
In not only giving us her true self, Smith was also able to bring the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe to life again. (Having died of AIDS in 1989, Mapplethorpe’s legacy is shrouded in scandal, his photos’ blatant homoeroticism an assault to numerous artistic powers-that-be, including organizations such as Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery. But Mappplethorpe’s art, which also teemed with sensuous studies of flowers – hello, calla lilies – is of the highest order and definitively speaks for itself…gloriously.)
And so it is the Smith/Mapplethorpe relationship that is at the heart of Just Kids, giving us an inside glimpse into a bygone era – New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – and what it takes to be an artist. Astutely observed and affectionately portrayed, the book is mythically compelling, exquisitely written and utterly authentic.
As pour moi: How do I love Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; let me count the ways.
I, too, checked into the Hotel Chelsea (which is, sadly, for sale…), walking the ghostly halls of that fabled 23rd Street institution, albeit a bit later, in order to follow my dreams. Falling in love with Patti’s music and Robert’s photos, I, too, was once an innocent wandering the streets of the Big Apple, seeking, learning, lusting and carrying on in my own fashion – inhabiting a parallel universe I can now relive through Patti’s magnificently rendered prose. Not for nothing is my favorite aria, Vissi d’arte, from Puccini’s Tosca. “I lived for art, I lived for love.” And so was that melody playing when Smith got the news of Mapplethorpe’s death. As for me: I still do live for art – and for love – but with no worries that I shall be jumping off a parapet to my death anytime soon (as Tosca did). Nor shall Patti Smith, whose book sings with truth and nobility. Thank you, Ms. Smith, for your singularly rhapsodic voice.