Shelf Awareness (Audio)Book Talk: *Just Kids*, by Patti Smith

This is a compensated review originally written for Shelf Awareness for Readers, which did not publish it. It is posted here with permission. I have a personal copy of this book, but hadn’t yet read it when I was offered the audiobook for review.

Just Kids
Patti Smith
HarperAudio (July 2011), unabridged audio CD (ISBN 9780062109385)
Memoir, 9 CDs

Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which began with a random meeting in Brooklyn in 1967 and lasted until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989, won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction. Drawn together by their shared drive to create art and united by a vow to take care of one another, they spent several remarkable years together in New York City’s artistic subculture, centered around the legendary Hotel Chelsea.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were far more than best friends. As struggling young artists, they were roommates and, for a time, lovers (until they both accepted Robert’s homosexuality). And as their artistic paths diverged – Robert’s toward photography, Patti’s to poetry and music – they were one another’s muses. In Just Kids, Smith doesn’t over-analyze their complex relationship; she simply shares it intimately and openly, and makes it absorbing and engaging.

Mapplethorpe’s art was edgy and controversial; Smith’s music and poetry may be more respected than popular. It’s not necessary to be a fan of either’s work to be drawn into their personal story. A sharp observer and accomplished writer, Smith makes their world vivid and engaging, recounting scenes, episodes and conversations in striking detail.

Smith acknowledges that it took her a long time to be ready to tell this story, and she doesn’t shy away from its less-than-flattering elements. With variations in tone that match the material – erudite discussion of French poetry soon followed by a drawling recount of a conversation with one of her Chelsea neighbors – she makes an appealing narrator of her own story in this audio production, which is enhanced by the inclusion of some of her lyrics and poetry.

Book description, from the publisher’s website: It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. 

Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous—the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years. 

Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.

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