Put Just Kids on your bookshelf

So, I’ve been sick all weekend and it’s trickled into today. The cedar fever really is no joke in Austin. This has derailed me from a lot of things, among them practicing David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and making a coherent pass at a post of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (a three-star movie in need of elaboration). I’ll try again after I wave a white flag and get some drugs. Basically, I’ve been able to do three things. One is some light editing for my partner’s e-zine and an abstract a friend and I are pitching. The second is re-watch The L Word. I discovered that Dana is kind of an idiot and the sex scenes can run together in a dispiriting fashion, though my love for Alice Pieszecki endures. Finally, I completed Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which I started yesterday.

Just Kids cover (HarperCollins, 2010); image courtesy of statesman.com

Despite some initial reservations about Smith’s gender politics, I’ve warmed up to her music and was especially motivated to read Just Kids after she won the National Book Award for Memoir last November. I endorse it. As writing, Smith’s lovely prose recommends itself, as she honors her profound relationship to a man who grew up and grew into his talents with her in a New York wiped away by AIDS and gentrification.

I also feel I have a better understanding of Smith’s rejection of femaleness. Her stance against feminism always bristled against my convictions, and interpreted her reverence toward male cultural icons as misogynistic. As I elaborated upon these feelings in a previous post, my friend Curran challenged my position and noted that Smith’s fandom was largely reserved for queer and/or queerable men and that she herself might identify as trans. While Smith never states as much in Just Kids, she mentions her disgust toward the hyper-feminine beauty ideals she grew up around in the 50s and makes specific reference to having little regard for the female body as culturally proscribed.

What I may have previously believed to be categorical hatred might actually be personal disregard. While I reject the idea of femaleness or femininity as singular–indeed, it’s a discursive, contradictory interplay of a variety of identities–I think I have a deeper understanding of where and when she came from and how that informs her art. This regard for autonomy seems especially clear when Smith discusses her disavowal of the decadence surrounding in New York during the later half of the 1960s and into the 70s. She believed drugs and sexuality were sacred, and thus only engaged with them for sacred purposes. Unlike many of her generation, Smith didn’t believe in copping or hooking up as means to an end.

But what’s special about Just Kids is the love she shared with Mapplethorpe. Once her lover and always her friend, the story is actually about the evolution of friendship and the cosmic connections forged between a masculine woman and a homosexual man who existed within the binaries of male and female and black and white that they played with. As someone whose first boyfriend was her oldest friend before he came out, I could certainly relate to the trajectory of their relationship, though Smith and Mapplethorpe shared something far deeper and queerer than most intimacies I’ve experienced.

The book courses their chance meeting to their affair to the development of their twin language to their artistic collaborations and years of silences. He champions her poetry and music. She strains to understand his fascination with sadomasochism. He photographs Horses. She cradles his urn, as a dream she had of him turning into dust foretold. It might be one of the best love stories I’ve read in ages. A few weeks before Valentine’s Day, reserve Just Kids for the person who understands you past language and memory.

One comment

  1. Queer Fish

    Such a belated comment, but I’m reading it just now. I love your blog and had read your post about Patti before and thought it brought up some interesting question. I find it great how you can put across doubts and appreciation at the same time, sometimes my loyalty to music/musicians leads me to be uncomfortable about questioning things that I might find need explanation or seem problematic. But more and more I’m getting past it, it makes me feel closer to the music. I remember being drawn to Patti (before I knew her music better) just by her androgyny and something defiant but also gentle and beautiful I saw in her person. Rock n Roll Nigger was the first song of hers I had heard and thought it was amazing, recently discovered that its one of Courtney Love’s (another problematic but greatly beloved personal hero) favourites.

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