Just Kids by Patti Smith is a profound and moving tale of two kids trying to make it as artists. This book is a must-read for any and everyone, especially for artists, because it's a beautiful story of human spirit surpassing struggles, and sacrifices to fulfill its destiny. At the crux are two mavericks, Patti and Robert, a heady concoction of youth, living through desperate times, and dire straits, and finding their way to glory and success. This is definitely among my all-time favorites. It is inspiring, sad and uplifting. It depicts a way of life so radical, so pure, so spiritually evolved that it makes you question things about your life and leaves you reeling with emotions, thoughts and revelations.
The way of artists is a way of all things surreal, stark, intense, quixotic and free. This book is so beautifully written, so thoughtfully narrated, and it so wonderfully encompasses the entwined life of two artists that I have never quite read anything like it before. Its poetic, its redemptive, its gritty, its a fairy tale, and it brings to life the New York of 60's, 70's and 80's.
As a child, Patti was every bit a stubborn, imaginative, unruly, artistic kid who loved to read and daydream. She grows up to be a shy adolescent finding comfort and meaning in rock and roll, and books, and seeks to be an artist. At nineteen, she ends up being pregnant, gives her baby up for adoption, and moves away from her family to New York.
And this is where the fairy tale of struggle, ideal romanticism, heady and wistful times, love, pain and survival begins to take shape. I could barely believe the things she, and Robert endured for their art, for their love, and for their calling. Homeless, starved, and looking for a job - that is pretty much the gist of Patti's first few days in NY. She sleeps on stoops in safe neighborhoods, in parks and in subways, and she rides this roller-coaster of an unusual, uncertain life in a stoic, brazen manner.
One day, she is so starved that she goes on a date with a stranger for the sake of food, and while she is desperately trying to extricate herself from the company of this gentleman at the end of the date, she catches a glimpse of a young boy who had bought a beautiful necklace from the store where she worked, a few days ago. She runs up to him, asks him if he would pretend to be her boyfriend to which he replies, "Sure", and off they go and tell the spooky stranger that she and her boyfriend are going to take off, and farewell to thee. That young boy who rescued Patti was Robert, and that was the beginning of their life-long relationship.
They start living together in unbelievably tiny spaces, and work as a team, and as rebellious individuals giving themselves to their art. They visit pawn shops, thrift stores to buy art supplies, eat bare minimal, often go hungry and treat each other with compassion, empathy and understanding. Young and alone, they make a pact to help and protect each other until they are strong enough, and have the bandwidth to make it on their own. The two stay true to this pact, even as Robert soon discovers that he is homosexual.
Patti and Robert struggle, evolve, and eventually become successful artists. Their life story is infused with daredevil acts so terrifyingly edgy that it makes you want to give a standing ovation to these kids who were dreamy and stubborn enough to fulfill their calling. Robert establishes himself as a revolutionary photographer of darker themes and Patti blossoms into a successful singer. She starts off with writing poetry and gradually molds them into rock and roll songs with guitar, drums and piano, and has her own band. Who says writing poetry is a dead end, and a no good pursuit? Clearly, they know nothing of Patti Smith.
There are references to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Rimbaud, Andy Warhol and several other pioneering artists. The whole book is very atmospheric and electrically charged with the confluence of artistic endeavors, and the eccentric, wild ways of those beckoned by the call of art. It mentions Hotel Chelsea in NY, which is where some of the most iconic artists lived and brought to life their art including Robert and Patti. The descriptions are very vivid, and redolent of a bygone era.
The love story between Robert and Patti is beyond anything that I have ever read before. It surpasses and survives, and grows into a brotherhood that emerges between two kindred spirits. They know each other so uncannily and are so comfortable with each other that they share the absurd with no fear of judgement or being left out. They love, and care for each other, but their mutual love is not confined by the bounds of a conventional relationship.
Robert was the first to tell Patti, very early on, that she should be a singer. He pushed her to read her poetry in public and used his network to get her exposure. Patti was the first to tell Robert that he should take his own pictures with a camera instead of making a collage out of magazines, and it was she who supported him financially in the beginning days. Their equation got me thinking.
Robert and Patti's relationship was so beyond the conventional code that it truly was the free-spirited love between two artists. The two loved each other in a way that helped them manifest their destiny of becoming great artists. That is not how love is marketed ever. Why has true love come to be synonymous with spending an eternity together instead of helping each other manifest their destiny, and their calling?
There are quite a few haunting moments in this book. Towards the end of the book, in one scene, Robert asks Patti, "Did art get to us?". It makes you think how far are you willing to go to express your true self and to let go of all your inhibitions, and what price would you end up paying for going off on an extreme, deep end kind of pursuit.
The most powerful thing about art is that it speaks the truth, and it makes you question your notions. This book made me realize something that I have never been able to understand. It was a breakthrough moment for me. And I erupted into the following soliloquy:
"I think I have found the perfect word that describes me, just one word: artist. And, as flamboyant, as retarded, as frivolous, as meaningless this word might seem to you, it perfectly embodies the essence of who I am and who I have been for the longest time. It explains why I see what I see, how I see what I see and what I think and believe and seek. It explains the madness, the silence, the chaos. It explains the unbridled need for a spiritual evolution, and aesthetic revolution. It explains the unanimous, overwhelming dissonance with the world around me. It explains the jarring disposition that I have graced and braced since time immemorial. It explains the dreaminess within me, and a stoic resistance to being anything other than a starry-eyed, quixotic fool.
The twenties were a blur of nothingness and a string of farces, but the thirties will be my decade, and there will be no stopping the artist within."
I wrote about 250 - 300 poems when I was 23. And, then they gathered dust until life became such an epic torment that I realized walking away from your destiny ruins you with a vengeance. So, I pledged to dedicate myself to my potential of being a published novelist, and author.
When youth finds you, so does a calling that beckons, and the light of a billion stars. Heed it, fight for it, endure for it, and let it lead you to your destiny. I have been wondering if being young is the only way to be stubborn, idealistic, courageous, artistic and adventurous. As we grow old, does our edge, our will wear off as our physical strength surely does? Do we feel more strongly, more passionately only as a heady consequence of being young? Does the creative impulse dissipate as we grow old? Robert and Patti met at the age of 19 or 20, and worked relentlessly as exuberant kids with fierce artistic temperaments. Would they still have been able to create their success story if they were in their thirties?
This book inspired, enthralled and left me with the deepest awe and love for artists all over the world. Read this book, really.
The love for books & a hunger for stories was programmed into my DNA. And, sooner than later, life experiences sealed the deal. Books have saved me, transformed my life, enlightened me and have shown me the path I must walk. In a way, far too many books have played the role of kindred spirits and guides, leading the seeker in me to answers and paving a way for a new way of life. Books have helped me keep my wits, my sense of wonder, my sense of mystery and curiosity & my sanity in a life that has been anything but predictable and normal.