I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids and I’m fascinated. I honestly didn’t think I’d be too intrigued by her story but it’s drawn me in and held me captive. Yes, there’s sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll but, honestly, there’s way less of all three than I was expecting. What I am really taking away from this book are much more abstract concepts, stirrings in my gut, and tugging at my heart. Patti is really evoking a sense of her time and place. There is this need for feeling (the physical, emotional, mental act) that reverberates through her book like a gong being slammed. And it’s not just her, it’s her time (1960’s and 1970’s), her place (New York City).
This book is doing things to me. The people she writes about crave to feel things and to have others feel things. I’ve always looked at drugs and, at times, sex as an escape—a shutdown of bad feelings. And though there is a sense that such a thing was part of the reason these things were so rampant, it is nothing more than a part. There’s a desperation to feel more, more, more. Patti Smith’s personal experience with drug use is small. It was experimental and she voiced a preference to partake in drug use as an enhancement to her creativity versus a tool for navigating social scenes. But drug use wasn’t the only thing that led her to be creative. She didn’t have that crutch. She was creative before, during, and after a drug. She was creative without it and with it and more often than not, she went without.
The name-dropping is mind-blowing and yet it doesn’t feel like the name-dropping of today. In Patti’s stories, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and so many others are touchable. They are not precious. They are not on pedestals. They’re dirty. They’re heartbroken. They’re working. They’re sweating. They’re grunting. They’re dying. They’re failing. They’re succeeding. They’re aging. They’re normal.
Today, you hear the names of famous people and for one, they’re famous for mostly wrong reasons, but also, there is a feeling that they live in a world apart—untouchable. The famous ones of today put themselves in crystal castles. They enclose themselves in expensive, dark vehicles. They hide in security-laden resorts. What are they afraid of? The people? Have they forgotten they’re as much us as we are them?
Patti’s people were addicted to living and feeling everything. And that’s missing today. There’s a rawness in Patti Smith’s stories that I don’t think is possible today. Yes, a lot of these people wrecked themselves– look back at that list and note how many are dead and gone. They wanted to elevate, elevate, elevate, and crashed and burned. They were disappointed in the numbness they saw around them and the preoccupations people had. They wanted to shake the world and say, “Wake Up!”
They’d be horrified today. They’d be smashing their heads into walls and all for naught. That’s what saddens me. In the 60s and 70s, very small but determined groups of people were able to shake the world. They were able to cause ripples with the equivalent of pebbles. And though we claim the world has gotten smaller with the evolution of technology, we’ve also created a much larger pond. The ripples of a pebble don’t get close to the shoreline.
It is fascinating to me that it is far easier today to truly tune out than it was during a time where drug abuse was rampant. It’s not just the glows of televisions, computers, and video game consoles. It’s the medications. It’s even the food. For their weed, we have Cartoon Network, FaceBook, Prozac, and Whoppers. For their LSD, we have Fox News, World of Warcraft, Xanax, and French Fries (extra large). For their speed, we have ESPN, Grand Theft Auto, Ritalin, and Coca Cola.
Please don’t mistake me as romanticizing the 60’s and 70’s. I think they must have been extremely difficult times to grow up in, and even harder times to be a grown up in (imagine being a parent or grandparent). I think there was conflict raging at all levels—micro to macro. Homes and governments alike were in turmoil. The lives Patti’s people led were truly difficult. They were often malnourished, plagued by disease, and surrounded by crime scenes.
And please don’t mistake me as dismissive of our present life and times. I haven’t given up on today or even tomorrow. I don’t think we’re living in a world completely inhabited by zombies. I have hope.
And maybe that’s where I find my kinship with Patti Smith. I haven’t even finished the book—I begin the last section today, but I sense something connecting there and it’s a hope.
I have a hope for beauty to return to our world—true, raw, glorious, unforgiving beauty. I have a hope it returns and resurrects our seemingly slumbering muses. I have a hope it stirs its way into paints, pencils and camera lenses. I have a hope it slinks into pens, keyboards, and typewriters. I have a hope it shimmies into pianos, guitars, and vocal chords. I have a hope it swells into fabric, metals, and leathers.
And more than anything, I hope it shakes us all and screams like a banshee—“WAKE THE FUCK UP!”