I was driving home a few weeks ago and heard Terry Gross interview Patti Smith about her new memoir Just Kids. It was one of those interviews where you sit in your car and keep listening well after you get where you’re going. I picked up the book days later and dove in as soon as I could. It was the right choice.
Just Kids focuses on the unusual and enduring relationship that Smith had with photographer/artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith, at the age of 20, had set off to New York City to try to make her mark as an artist and poet. On her first day there, she met Mapplethorpe, himself a struggling artist. The two eventually developed a romantic relationship and move in to a Brooklyn hovel together. It’s the Summer of Love, but neither is much into the hippie thing. They are each preparing for the Next Thing.
Their early New York days are the archetypal starving artist experience: constant struggling to pay rent, going hungry when money is tight (and money is always tight), getting lice from seedy lodgings, etc. And if that sounds romantic to you, consider this: Patti’s first hint that her soul mate might be gay surfaces when Robert begins street hustling to help pay the rent. Even as Smith describes her dismay at seeing her boyfriend go out into the night, she can sense your judgement and offers simply:
Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself?
Difficult as it was, Patti and Robert make unlikely and important connections within the art world almost from the very beginning of their life in New York. For example, Patti first met Beat poet Allen Ginsberg when he bought her a sandwich in a Manhattan automat. It turns out that Ginsberg thought that she was a very pretty young boy. Ginsberg would later champion Smith’s poetry and he provided introductions to Gregory Corso and William S. Buroughs. Corso teaches Patti how to avoid giving boring poetry readings, and Burroughs is among the earliest attendees of Patti’s rock shows at the nascent CBGB’s. She meets Hendrix and provides relationship advice to Janice Joplin. After the romantic side of her relationship with Robert runs its course, Patti dates Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, some guy in the Blue Oyster Cult, and Fred “Sonic” Smith (who she would eventually marry).
The young couple eventually found themselves residents of the famed Chelsea Hotel, all but sealing their fates as artists of renown. Patti became famous first. Just as their career trajectories were primed to seriously take off, the pair landed their first and only joint art show. Patti describes the show:
We chose to present a body of work that emphasized our relationship: artist and muse, a role that for both of us was interchangeable.
And that’s the point of this book. This is the story of a relationship that was greater that the sum of its parts. Neither would have realized their artistic potential had the other not been in their life. Each provided what the other needed in support and nurturing companionship to get through the crisis at hand and strive to create another day.
The book also provides a fascinating look at tortured process through which art comes into the world. Smith did not set out to be a rock star and Mapplethorpe had less than no interest in the field of photography. Robert Mapplethorpe took the now iconic cover picture for Patti’s first album (listen to the Fresh Air interview to find out why the record company hated the picture). From there he went on to become a controversial giant of the art world. The books ends after Robert’s death with AIDS, as it must. Smith promised Mapplethorpe that one day she would write their story. She has made good on that promise, and it is quite a story. This is a beautifully written book that is sure to top many year-end “best of” lists. It will be on mine.
As a fortuitous accident, I read Just Kids not long after finishing Helen Weaver’s The Awakener (see my review), a memoir of Weaver’s relationship with Jack Kerouac. Between the two books, a picture emerges of the avant garde art scene in New York from the 1950s through the 1980s. A direct line between the Beats and the punk scene that would emerge from CBGB’s can be clearly drawn, which was a revelation for me. The two memoirs have notable similarities. Both authors write about transformative relationships with men who certainly had their demons. Each woman survives their subject’s death – deaths that were caused to an extent by “lifestyle” choices. Both credit/blame their subject’s Catholicism for important aspects of their personalities. It’s an interesting comparison and progression through the decades.
But wait, there’s more:
Clearly this a book that begs to have some music to accompany the review. Let’s start with my favorite Patti Smith song that’s not Because the Night.
Patti Smith – Dancing Barefoot
I have no idea why that’s my favorite. It just is. Another of my favorite Patti Smith recordings is her backing vocals on the R.E.M. song E-bow the Letter. Her spooky and ethereal keening is so emotive, it kills me every time. I saw Patti Smith join R.E.M. for a live performance of the song just last year. If I had any hair, it would have stood on end.
And some songs by singers that were clearly influenced by Patti Smith (according to me):
PJ Harvey – Good Fortune
Pretenders – The Adultress
Cat Power – Speak for Me
Video of 10,000 Maniacs covering Because the Night, a Smith/Sringsteen collaboration
And lastly, I include Sympathy for the Devil since it was mentioned specifically in the text. Smith remembers that Mapplethorpe was completely taken with the song on first listen and seemed to relate to it as he was beginning to explore what he considered the darker side of himself.
Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil (Neptunes Remix)
And if you need more, you can tune into the Just Kids station that I set up on Pandora to complete my Patti Smith immersion experience.