Smyth or Smith? Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen St. John's University
Patti Smith and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe

When I began reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, I sort of thought I was reading the work of Patty Smyth, former lead singer of Scandal, performer of “The Warrior,” and now wife to tennis star John McEnroe.  My excuses for such ignorance include that I’m straight out of the decade of the eighties, from the Midwest, and was likely under a Hoosier basketball spell during the time Smith came to prominence as an artist.  Saying that, you might wonder how it is that I ended up reading Just Kids. I do a Music and Movies book club and pressed by the community relations director for a selection for the month of March, I browsed the store looking for a text that might fit our theme.  The clincher for me were the jacket blurbs written by Joan Didion and Johnny Depp.  Not that Didtion’s “true rapture” or Depp’s “treasure” do much to tell you what the book is about, but in the work of those two there are several books and movies that I love.  I trusted Depp and Didion and so off I went to reading.

I became re-inspired as a writer in the pages of Just Kids. Smith begins her story with the meeting of her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe and by sharing how they both wanted to be artists.  Between the first pages and the last, you see Smith transform from someone who hangs around art—she draws a little, writes poetry, begins to move toward singing—and who eventually strolls down 5th Avenue  and hears her song (that she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen) on the radio.  Her buddy Robert tells her that she got famous first.

What I mean by inspiration is that as a writer I feel sparked to work even harder to tap into what I care about, to tap into what matters most.  Smith writes, “I wanted to be an artist but I wanted my work to matter” (153).  I feel determined to give myself over to whatever it is that I’m working on.  What else might I do?  What sometimes gets in the way?  I can think too much about what readers might want to read, about the craft of the lines, and about trying to do something especially smart or funny.  These are goals—sideline concerns—but not at the top of the list of what I’m after.  Faced with less than enthusiastic audiences (perhaps with less than soaring book sales) Smith’s friend tells her, “When you hit a wall, just kick it in”  (170).  Not bad to remember facing an audience full of people checking their cell phones.

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen St. John's University Patti Smith
The National Book Award Winner: Just Kids

Life at my house often feels more Midwestern or Southern than it does Northeastern, but in reading Just Kids, I felt for the first time a bit more like a New Yorker, or at least more interested in what it might be to live in New York City.  Perhaps this is what Depp meant when he says Smith gives us an “invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.”  In Depps treasure chest (hey, does he mean Pirates of the Caribbean?) I found an interest in The Hotel Chelsea, Max’s Kansas City, The Factory, Fillmore East, Reno Sweeny’s, and Electric Lady Studios.   It used to be that I didn’t care to know about the Velvet Underground.  Now I do.

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