The Illuminations of 'Just Kids' by Patti Smith
Memory-made-novel or a poetic chronicle, Patti Smith’s story is much more than the rock star’s autobiography.
How can one be sure they are an artist? Is an artist born or made, as the old dichotomy goes? Perhaps the trajectory of an artist is less about certainties and about finding roads among the uncertainty that a life dedicated to creation represents. But of what? Of oneself. This idea can be followed, like a vein of silver through an intricate labyrinth, in the memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith, published in 2010.
Born in 1946 and raised in an environment apt for the imagination, surrounded by her siblings, with her father reading extracts from Plato after dinner, Smith has since a young child lived immersed in the world of the imagination. Arthur Rimbaud was always her favorite. Illuminations and A Season in Hell were her companions, and she regularly refers to the stormy (and in its way loving) relationship between Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine, in relation to the person who would be her playmate in the world of art, as well as her romantic companion during her apprenticeship as an artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith left New Jersey in her early twenties to embark on the adventure of creating a soul in New York. “I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one,” she writes.
After spending time living on the streets, Patti found refuge, affection and interlocution in Robert, a talented and impulsive painter trying to carve a furrow for himself amid the crowded artistic world of New York in the 1970s.
Meeting Mapplethorpe — in a kind of game of hide-and-seek that recalls the unexpected encounters of Horacio Oliveira and Maga in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch – was one of the turning points of her life: it is revealing that, by telling the story of her life and the events that led to her becoming one of the greatest rock stars of all time, Smith interweaves the life of Robert, as if their destinies had been tied together since the beginning.
Together they rode an artistic learning curve in drawing, painting, photography and poetry, as well as in the economic adversities that, seen through Smith’s memory, give the era a romantic slant. However, the romanticism of the end of the 1960s was consumed by the corpses and the glow of napalm in Vietnam, the murders by the Manson clan and the death of musicians greatly admired by Smith: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison. The book also offers glimpses into the creative process behind Smith’s emblematic albums such as Horses and Dream of Life.
It was after seeing The Doors live that Patti first thought that she could also do that: stand before a crowd and make them feel really alive. Her androgynous look and huge intelligence – as well as a blind confidence in her own fate – little by little connected her with the most respected of the New York avant-garde, many of whom gathered at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived for a time with Robert.
The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.
As well as the ghost of Rimbaud, those of Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lou Reed, Salvador Dalí, Diane Arbus, Susan Sontag and Dylan Thomas also appear in the book, and all of which takes place to the soundtrack of the era: the music of The New York Dolls, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Blue Öyster Cult, Television and Jimi Hendrix, like a convention of images that crosses time and the imagination of a woman capable of embodying her own era and portraying it through her life and songs.
By transcending the bourgeois idea of a “romantic couple,” Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe rehearsed a way of mutually relating to each other that kept them together through bright and dark times, until the end of Robert’s life, who died of AIDS in 1989. The book is in its own way an amorous elegy and a celebration of Robert’s life, as well as a first-person narrative of how someone becomes what they already were at the beginning, illuminating themselves with the elements at their disposal through a vital labyrinth.
“We wanted, it seemed, what we already had, a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet be free.”
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