Monday, January 16, 2012

Just Kids

Patti Smith

Celebrity autobiographies are an iffy proposition. This one grabs your with the first sentence and never lets go. No wonder it won a National Book Award.

Patti Smith arrived in New York on a Trailways bus with only a few dollars in her pocket and an old address of some friends she hoped to stay with. Instead she found Robert Mapplethorpe, then an unknown young aspiring artist. Together they worked their way up from homelessness to fame, or at least noteriety, and relative affluence.

You may recognize Robert Mapplethorpe's name. He was the artist who's work was used as an justification for an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, led by then House Speaker and now Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich. Mapplethorpe never received any NEA money. The controversy over an exhibition of his work that resulted in cuts to the NEA budget erupted about four months after Mapplethorpe's death.

Mapplethorpe's photographs were a deliberate attempt to make pornography an art form. His awakening to his own homosexuality, as well as the development of his artistic vision are central to this book.The opening chapter, as well as the end of the book deal with Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS. Smith does not attempt to gloss over or sugar coat his, or her own, participation in the sexual revolution that took place in the 1970's, or it's consequences. I'm sort of glad that I was so clueless that I missed the whole thing. You may want to have a serious conversation with your middle school age child before giving her this book to read.

Patti Smith came to New York believing that she was an artist, or maybe a poet. It was only through a series of accidents that she came to realize that she could be a rock star. Her musical debut occurred when she brought her friend, Lenny Kaye, along to play guitar at one of her poetry readings. She continues to produce drawings and publish poetry along side her musical career.

Smith and Mapplethorpe lived together in a room at the Chelsey Hotel in New York for a couple of years. At the Chelsey they met such people as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and saw Salvadore Dali stroll through the lobby. Many opportunities came to them through their association with the Chelsey.

Just Kids is not a "how I became a rock star" pot boiler. Smith's attention is very much on Mapplethorpe and the intense, if odd, relationship she had with him. Her premise is that the growth of his art, and hers, came directly out of this relationship. I get the impression that she feels it was worth the price of admission.


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