Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
My first introduction to Patti Smith, as it probably was for most listeners, was through her remake of "Gloria," where she transformed Van Morrison's ode to teenage lust into a frenzied whiplash of ur-punk bliss. Hearing her croon "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," like the forgotten love child of Howlin' Wolf, was the most transgressive thing this Catholic schoolboy had ever heard. Listening to her music and reading about the New York punk scene in magazines like Creem opened my mind to the fact that there was more to music than "Freebird" and Kiss.
In her memoir Just Kids, Smith chronicles those down-and-out days when she transformed from the product of a thorough middle-class upbringing to the poet/high priestess of the bohemian demimonde of 1970s New York. Accompanying her on this journey of self-actualization was Robert Mapplethorpe. What began as a chance meeting between the two became a lifetime of mutual inspiration as each pursued their artistic ambitions. Smith, a slavish devotee of Rimbaud, sought to express herself through poetry and sketching, while Mapplethorpe, not yet a photographer, struggled to find his ideal medium.
The artist's journey is never easy, and Smith writes candidly about this period of her life. Of their first apartment together, she explains, "The walls were smeared with blood and psychotic scribbling, the oven crammed with discarded syringes, and the refrigerator overrun with mold." Money was so tight that debates would emerge as to whether they could afford Mapplethorpe's beloved chocolate milk, as it cost a dime more than plain milk.
As each begins to find their voice, however, their tranquility is threatened when Mapplethorpe is forced to confront his homosexuality, despite his promise to never leave Smith's side. At this time, there was no mainstreaming of gay culture, and neither Smith nor Mapplethorpe knew how to deal with his yearnings. Smith chides herself, writing, "In my literary imagination, homosexuality was a poetic curse, notions that I had gleaned from Mishima, Gide, and Genet. I knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality." Eventually, Mapplethorpe was able to channel this awakening into his art, creating, as Smith describes, "a diary of his internal evolution."
Getting equal credit in this story of two artists is the city where it all happened. In Just Kids, Smith vividly describes a pre-Giuliani (heck, pre-Ed Koch) New York, the city as it appears in films such as Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy but without either film's nihilism. Smith's New York is a city of clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB, Warhol's Factory and Automats (where Allen Ginsberg, thinking the androgynous Smith was a boy, buys her lunch). Her life in New York includes stints as a cashier at FAO Schwartz and a steady gig working at Scribner's bookstore. As much as this book is biography, it's also an evocative topography of a city that survives only in memory.
Smith has always been a gifted wordsmith, and while her lyrics and poetry resonate with the personal and confessional, Just Kids probably does more to situate the artist and her relationship to the world than anything she's previously done. Stripped of both the intensity that accompanies her music, and the metaphor and mysticism of her poetry, Smith's writings here are still vividly observant and sometimes painfully self-aware, but now they possess a voice not only of yearning but also of experience.
Books mentioned in this post