There’s a danger in getting personally involved when reading memoirs of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. These books can distort your perspective on your own times and leave you in unrealistic comparisons with others. Admire your heroes, though you can never follow exactly in their footsteps.
Take as an example the first generation of rock musicians, from the middle 1950s through the 1960s. Those were very tough and unique times in America and Britain. The end of the second world war, the introduction of television, multi-track recording, electric guitars. The civil rights movement, Kinsey reports and Masters and Johnson, the Vietnam war, the killing of America’s progressive leaders. Those were troubled decades, and looking back one sees more differences than similarities when comparing today with the lives of the first rockers.
As I’m reading Patti Smiths memoir, Just Kids, for the second time this summer, I’m experiencing a stronger connection to her words than I usually feel for a memoir. I’ve read memoirs by U2, Clarence Clemons, Keith Richards, and Pat Benatar recently. Digging into their creative process and business struggles fascinates me and inspires me. But I keep a safe distance, knowing that I have to make my own life in my own times. Patti Smith’s book is different, because I feel the emotional power in her honest and intimate words.
Smith’s memoir focuses particularly on her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe from the late 1960s through his death twenty years later. She tells their stories in clear, emotional insights, how they met, fell in love, and struggled day by day to create artistic lives in New York City. It’s rare to find such self-aware description of the inner thoughts, dreams, and feelings of young creative hearts. Smith describes her first attempts in poetry, art, theater, and eventually her poetic punk music that broke open new directions for rock. She also describes Mapplethorpe’s early installations and fashions and how he eventually found his voice through photography.
There’s a lot of mundane detail in this book–so many outfits, names, and references. Smith is brilliantly literate and tells her story in her own terms, and I honestly can’t keep up with many of the artists she mentions. But the mundane details go hand in hand with the very personal telling of the two young artists in New York City’s artistic cauldron. There are some great stories about celebrities of the time, such as Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Harry Smith, and Johnny Winter.
If you feel a connection to Patti Smith’s music or Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, you’ll find this book a stirring experience.