It took me a while to get here, but this post is the third of three, each reviewing, in order, the best three books I read in 2012 (though none were released in 2012). My favourite read of 2012 was Just Kids by Patti Smith. Read part one here and part two here.
“We played as one, and the pulse and pitch of the band spiraled us into another dimension. Yet with all that swirling around me, I could feel another presence as surely as the rabbit senses the hound. He was there. I suddenly understood the nature of the electric air. Bob Dylan had entered the club. This knowledge had a strange effect on me. Instead of humbled, I felt a power, perhaps his; but I also felt my own worth and the worth of my band. It seemed for me a night of initiation, where I had to become fully myself in the presence of the one I had modeled myself after.”
Patti Smith can write about a lot of things most of us can’t. She was there. She lived at the Chelsea Hotel when the Chelsea Hotel brimmed with misfits and rebels. She frequented places haunted by Andy Warhol and his cast of oddities like Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis. She was in the room when Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin first sang “Me and Bobby McGee.” These are just a few of the many anecdotes found in her National Book Award winning masterpiece Just Kids.
“I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.”
When Patti Smith arrived in New York City it was the late 1960s, and she was “beat and hungry, roaming with a few belongings wrapped in a cloth, hobo style, a sack without a stick.” Then she met Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist and a soul mate, who became her lover and roommate in a tiny room in the Chelsea Hotel, the place where Dylan Thomas spent his last days, Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, and Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
In Just Kids, Mapplethorpe is a light — blazing with energy and mystery and art and romance, and Smith is instantly attracted. The pair has no money and little food, but they own Blonde on Blonde and they have their art — Mapplethorpe a photographer and Smith, not yet a singer, but a creature dedicated to creating.
“So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.”
I loved this book fiercely and completely because it’s unlike any memoir I’ve read. Just Kids isn’t Patti Smith’s story. It isn’t Robert Mapplethorpe’s story. It’s the story of their lives together as young bohemians at a time unlike any other. “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us,” writes Smith.
Smith and Mapplethorpe’s spirits and creativity become knitted and they remain each other’s muses, even after their relationship crumbles. You can’t read Just Kids without examining your own relationships and the relics they’ve left behind. One of the most endearing aspects of Just Kids is Smith’s relationship to the ephemeral and the fleeting, and a relationship with “stuff” that I easily understand. “After Robert died, I agonized over his belongings, some of which had once been ours,” she writes of the things Mapplethorpe left behind when he died of AIDS-related complications in 1989.
“Yet I have a lock of his hair, a handful of his ashes, a box of his letters, a goatskin tambourine. And in the folds of faded violet tissue a necklace, two violet plaques etched in Arabic, strung with black and silver threads, given to me by the boy who loved Michelangelo.”
I have never had an answer to that question book lovers get all the time, “What’s your favourite book,” but I do now. I felt a connection to Just Kids, which to me, is that unique quality that makes a book a favourite. A favourite book isn’t only one that is captivating and well written. It goes beyond that. It’s something else. It’s a connection to something that someone else has written that feels so personal that it crawls and slides and cracks into your soul like no other book has.
A favourite book is one that you want to read again as soon as you’ve finished it. It’s one you want to gift to every single person you’ve ever met from your best friend to the guy whose name you don’t know where you buy your coffee in the morning.
Just read this book. You’ll see for yourself.