Like Patti Smith, I grew up writing poetry and listening to rock’n’roll. That is where the similarity ends because I am not an artist, only an appreciator of them. Although I haven’t read Arthur Rimbaud or Jean Genet, nor have I yet been to Paris, I have always been captivated by the music of the 70s and the writings of Sam Shepard, Jim Carroll and Jim Morrison. I had no idea that Shepard and Carroll were Smith’s lovers but reading the dreamy, tender narrative of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe surprised me in many ways, including the fact that he was also her lover, because I knew he was openly gay. Until now, I haven’t known very much about Patti Smith except that some of my friends are big fans of hers, she’s collaborated with Springsteen (one of my music heroes), and that her poetry, music and art earned her a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
I often dream of where I’d go if I had my own hot tub time machine and New York City during the late 60s/early 70s is definitely one of the places I’d choose. Patti Smith was born almost 20 years before me, but I’ve listened to and loved a lot of the music that was created by her contemporaries (in particular, The Doors and Janis Joplin) and have been a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography for a long time. However, she has made me appreciate his work with new eyes and I’m grateful for that. Reading Smith’s autobiography Just Kids is the next best thing to using a hot tub time machine as she has written an exquisite account of her early years as a struggling artist and Mapplethorpe’s muse.
From 1967 to 1978, Patti shares her memories of their lives in New York City and specifically at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, a dreamscape so perfectly realized and vividly fascinating that you feel as if you’re there with them. We meet many legendary artists including William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard and Tom Verlaine, although none of them holds a candle to the flame that is the telling of the birth of Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s artistic legacy.
Patricia Lee Smith was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946 and was part of a close knit family that included her siblings Linda, Todd and Kimberly, who later relocated with their parents to South Jersey. What struck me about Patti that I wasn’t expecting is that she’s a very down-to-earth, deeply spiritual person and was never a drug addict as one who hasn’t known her might imagine based on her skinny heroin chic look and the time in which she came of age and became famous for being a punk rocker poet. In researching her for this review, I discovered that we share a very similar view of religion as well:
I believe there is good in in [sic] all religions. But religion, politics and business, all of these things, have been so corrupted and so infused with power that I really don’t have interest in any of it – governments, religion, corporations. But I do have interest in the human condition. (Rolling Stone)
Patti’s love for Robert Mapplethorpe was utterly pure and transcended any boundaries that society might have wanted to instill upon them. Although they weren’t meant to be together as husband and wife, they were most certainly soul mates (regardless of her marriage to MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith) up until his tragic death at the age of 42. On March 9, 1989 Robert died from complications due to AIDS. Her recollection of his passing within the pages of this book brought me to tears. Just Kids opens with the phone call she received from Robert’s brother Edward telling her that he had finally succumbed to his illness, at which moment she was listening to Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”, and it ends with her making peace with having to say goodbye. (“Smile for me Patti, as I am smiling for you.”) In between, we get to know Robert Mapplethorpe as intimately as a stranger can and develop an understanding of what inspired him as an artist as she traces “their first meetings (there were two of them before one fateful night in Tompkins Square Park) to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods…” (Interview Magazine)
Just Kids is a masterpiece, filled with iconic black and white photographs of Smith and Mapplethorpe, including some of their art and a few of Smith’s poems as well. She’s a very gifted poet and although I confess that I was never a big fan of her music aside from “Because The Night” and “Power To The People”, (I was 11 when Horses was released) I’m listening to it now with new ears and would love to read more of her poetry and song lyrics because this book has made me fall for her…hard. I now understand why she has endured and why there will never be another female rock artist like her. Anyone who can write a memoir that inspires someone to discover their career forty years after it began deserves to be the national treasure that Patti Smith is.