Memoir Book Review of Patti Smith’s Just Kids Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on November 18, 2010

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #67 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

NOTE: Lanie sent us an email tonight saying that Patti Smith’s memoir won the National Book Award in nonfiction. We’re pleased to have such a timely memoir book review for you.

Lanie Tankard, Women’s Memoirs Guest Memoir Book Reviewer

Let’s talk about voice. Patti Smith has definitely found hers, and with it she can help us find ours. In her memoir Just Kids, this Renaissance Woman offers not only her own story but also the tale of an era, the history of an artist’s evolution, and the meaning of friendship. If women writing memoir pay careful attention, they’ll find much to learn in this poignant book.

Just Kids won the 2010 National Book Awardin nonfiction last night. Earlier this year, writer Jonathan Lethem had a fascinating conversation with Smith for the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

Smith is a writer, poet, singer, performer, and visual artist. She has received the French Ministry of Culture’s title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Her 1975 debut album Horses has been listed as one of the top albums of all time. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic cover image was controversial at the time. In an NPR interview, Smith called the photo classic and simple, remembering her record company didn’t like it because her hair was messy. She refused to let them airbrush it.

Mapplethorpe and Smith met when they were both young, just kids new to New York — poor, hungry, desperate to survive so they could produce art. This memoir covers the whole creative milieu of the late Sixties and Seventies there, much the way Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume 1 did for the earlier part of the Sixties. They even overlap, as Smith writes of sensing Dylan’s presence at her band’s 1975 opening night: “He was there. I suddenly understood the nature of the electric air. Bob Dylan had entered the club.” Smith encounters recognizable names in music, poetry, art, and culture on practically every page.

The lives of Mapplethorpe and Smith remained intertwined until Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989. Smith promised him that she would capture on paper a portrait of their remarkable friendship. Just Kids is that promise kept.

She shies away from nothing, writing about difficult subjects with an open and honest voice, setting them down in a straightforward, unwavering purity. Smith describes Mapplethorpe’s struggles with his sexual identity as he realizes he’s gay, as well as reactions to her own appearance and masculine manner of dress.

Renowned psychologist Janet Taylor Spence, now retired, noted last year that the essence of masculinity and femininity is still undefined, and it’s one really nagging question she wished she could have answered. Gender identity is a concept we all believe in, she said, but no one knows what it means. It’s important, she continued, because it gets at the question of fear — of gay men, for example. Patti Smith’s book is by no means scientific research, but it does offer literary footing in this socially significant area.

Just Kids is excellently edited, and I don’t offer that level of praise often. It’s well written, but the story’s strength is not so much what is said, but rather what is left unsaid. Smith neither overwrites nor underwrites, employing a Goldilocks approach to detail. She channels her revered poet Rimbaud, in whose “irreverent intelligence” she found solace.

Smith sprinkles in descriptions of her writing venues and methods. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. She believes if she goes to Paris to visit Rimbaud’s haunts, she can harness his power and “write the words that would shatter nerves,…but I didn’t.”
Smith pens through pain and uses it to open a door to our common humanity. The result allows the writer’s voice to move swiftly off the page and into the reader’s heart. Smith creates sentences with an artist’s paintbrush, knowing just when to lift up the tip and when to go back and add a speck more. Take, for example, these two brief sentences on page 266: “I can hear him saying that. I can hear it now.” She could have conveyed the idea in different ways: I can still hear him saying that, or His words are with me now, or I can hear him now. Yet she broke it into two sentences. The deft brushstroke of that second sentence is genius. This is eloquence. This is poetry. This is voice — but it’s her voice. And in reading Smith’s memoir looking for her voice, you just might find your own.

Photo Credit: Lanie Tankard, 2003

Photo Credit: Lanie Tankard, 2003

I saw a Patti Smith exhibit, “Strange Messenger,” in 2003 at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and snapped this photo of my family in front of her poster. Reading about the creation of these artworks in Just Kids enriched my memory of them.

Smith is a rock star today, but she is not afraid to admit that in the beginning she didn’t realize you had to tune a guitar. I am not a rock star, and I’ll never be one, but Smith and I are very close to the same age. I have also been a little girl, and I, too, had a coonskin cap and trading cards while growing up, and encountered Little Lulu comic books. Likewise, I’ve been a young woman setting out from home to a new city where I knew no one. I identified with much of what she wrote. I realized this on page 25, when I noticed I was fighting back tears already. Smith hadn’t even gotten to New York yet. Why did I have a lump in my throat? Were other readers out there crying, too, I wondered? Was I the only one? “No one expected me,” she wrote. “Everything awaited me.” I, too, did a waitress stint, kept my record albums in an orange crate, and found comfort within a strange place in the softness and familiarity of sheets I’d brought from home.

Notice what’s happening here, writers of memoir. Patti Smith has fleshed out an image of the woman she was becoming, on the threshold of adulthood, with enough concrete detail that I catch glimpses of myself as I am reading. That capacity is part of what drives her memoir so powerfully, elevating it from a plodding rendition of the facts to a higher plane.

She documents the magnitude of hard work it takes to become noticed and successful. What is an artist? Smith explores that question as a running thread, for both herself and Mapplethorpe. She “held to the hope” that she was one. “To be an artist was to see what others could not.” Finally she understands “artists are their own breed.” She struggles with committing to a primary form of expression, realizing that income drives the choice of media. It takes her a long time to come around to combining poetry with three-chord rock to push music in a new direction called punk. Finally, she confronts the question Mapplethorpe poses to her as he is dying, “Patti, did art get us?” She writes: “Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express.”

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “Lump in the Throat” and 5 being “Tears Cascading Down Cheeks,” I’d rate Just Kids a solid 5. As I finished the memoir, I wondered whether the Austin Public Library would notice the waterlogged last page. My tears had sprung forth unbidden, splashing all over the book. Perhaps they’ll dry before the due date. That’s what voice can do to a reader. That’s what memoir can unleash.

Congratulations, Patti! That National Book Award was well deserved.


Photo Credit: Marlon Taylor, 1973

Photo Credit: Marlon Taylor, 1973

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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