Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just Kids

Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship and creative partnership with the late Robert Mapplethorpe, may be the ultimate New York story. When Smith and Mapplethorpe met they were barely 20 years old, trying to make it as artists, so poor they couldn't afford food. They inspired and drove each other for decades and both achieved great success. Along the way, they performed for Bob Dylan (well, Smith did), found their way into Andy Warhol's social circle, witnessed the golden ages of CBGBs and the Chelsea Hotel, acquired wealthy patrons and saw the world. The world Smith describes is colored by celebrities and drugs but ultimately driven by a passion for art and a passion to succeed much more than a passion to know the right people. Art and rock music may sound glamorous, she seems to say, and maybe they were, but what you really need to do is to put in the time. Smith worked in New York for the better part of a decade, running cash registers and living hand to mouth, before her first album was released.

Smith wrote Just Kids to fulfill a promise she made to Mapplethorpe before he died, 20 years ago, of AIDS. It's a fitting book for me to be reading right now; I've been thinking a lot about my obligations to do something with my life, and to do the things people who couldn't be on Earth for long never had the chance to. Yesterday I found out that a kid I used to tutor died of cancer. He was in his early 20s. Salim was a refugee from Somalia, by way of Kenya and Tanzania. He was a sharp kid and a good person with an excellent attitude. While other teenagers on the West Side of Buffalo were out getting into trouble, being irresponsible and destroying things, he stayed home taking care of his younger brother and his nieces and nephews. And he never bitched about not getting to be a normal teenager. Salim did get to go to college for a couple of years, which is something he had wanted, but other than that, never had much of a chance to enjoy life. And now he's gone.

His story, and Smith's, and Mapplethorpe's, are all reminders that our time on Earth is limited and that we only get one chance to make it count. Smith approaches her subject with honor and reverence. She is also a wonderful writer. It's a compelling read.

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