Sunday, February 27, 2011

Just Kids

Back in the mid 1990s when I moved out of home and into a flat in the seaside suburb of St Kilda, I lived with a girl who I met at uni where we were studying cinema studies. She came with what at the time seemed like very exotic things: a rice cooker, floral sheets and a stack of feminist film studies literature. There was not a lot she didn't know about; those two or three years that she had on me could have been twenty, especially on the subject of twentieth century literature, music, style icons and pivotal figures. I'm pretty sure she was the first one who uttered the words 'Patti' and 'Smith' in the same sentence. I remember thinking, 'Who?'. Even then, confronted with a photo of the striking androgynous singer/writer, I think I registered a kind of fear in the face of Smith's challenging gaze. She looked a bit hardcore for me, at the time in the thrall of Nina Simone. After reading Smith's recent and much lauded book, Just Kids – an account of her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – I'm not sure how I could have been so mistaken about her.

I'm still no wiser on the music front aside from that song she collaborated on with Bruce Springsteen but I can vouch for her writing. It is warm, sensitive and self aware. And if you ever asked yourself, 'Why would you keep a diary?' the answer is 'Just Kids'. Smith brings detail (not only to chronology and emotion but to setting and wardrobe). Anyone interested in the literature and music of American counterculture, New York and creative process will find something in it. It reduced me to tears on more than one occasion, and not out of sadness for Smith and Mapplethorpe but rapture at Smith's gift for unexpected way with language and her sure sense of conviction. I came away with a deep and abiding respect for Smith's courage in forging her own creative path and wonder at her capacity to accept and love Mapplethorpe with a generous heart no matter what. Now he was hardcore.

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