It First Began in the Streets — Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids

Just Kids
BY Patti Smith
(Ecco, 2010)

From the Publisher:

“It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation.

Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous — the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years.

Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.”

One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaftlets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs.

We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.

“Oh, take their picture,” said the women to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”

“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”

— “Just Kids,” p. 47

Sincere, poised, and lucid, Patti Smith’s autobiographical account of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) is a monumental elegy to an artist whose photography will stand the test of time and history. She who we call today the grande dame of rock-n-roll, poetry and punk art from the nostalgic seventies of New York; he who the Americans at large fail to honor — in his time and own rights — as one of the century’s greatest photographic artists without revisiting their own fascinations, voyeurism, moral judgments, shame and discomforts in regards to Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality, his excessiveness in life, his AIDS-inflicted death, and/or his subversive (or is it?) exploration of erotic subjects in the inquiry of photography as a craft that stretches beyond technical perfection or formal mastery.


Cover Photo of Patti Smith
BY Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975

To Mapplethorpe, the “artist of her life,” Patti Smith owes a life, one that is incomparably dense, rich, adventuresome, and original. Throughout her memoir, there is never a moment where she stops to check on her tenderness and affection when sharing unapologetically about both the private and public secrets of their strong mutual love, friendship, appreciation and work. The special bonds they have recognize no boundary, obey no limit. In their quest in being artists — a quest that subsequently, unconsciously and ambiguously mingles with the ambition of seeking fame, recognition and material independence as a step towards validating their creative “selves” — they create an entire universe for and within themselves.

At twenty, Patti Smith arrived in New York with nothing, really, and in some ways, she is now celebrated as the American archetype of a “success story.” When reading Just Kids, I realized that Smith was in fact offering us more than just a homage to Mapplethorpe; she was indirectly unraveling the silence and years behind two people who found each other in a child-like way, and in finding each other, tried to seek or forge immortality in art and life, while always remaining close to death and the struggle to survive. After all, one must not deny that many of their generation, some of them the most brilliant, died because they gave themselves to drugs, self-destruction, and decadence at some point in their lost paths — and drug addiction translates to money and its crimes. As Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” encapsulates it all, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”

Patti Smith’s touching account of her homeless beginnings before she was “rescued” by Mapplethorpe — by pure chance — from a science-fiction writer interested in her beyond a meal invitation spoke most to me, who also arrived in a foreign city with no one and no means before a specific encounter changed the course of events:

I can’t say I fit in, but I felt safe. No one noticed me. I could move freely. There was a roving community of young people, sleeping in the parks, in makeshift tents, the new immigrants invading the East Village. I wasn’t kin to these people, but because of the free-floating atmosphere, I could roam within it. I had faith. I sensed no danger in the city, and I never encountered any. I had nothing to offer a thief and didn’t fear men on the prowl. I wasn’t of interest to anyone, and that worked in my favor for the first few weeks of July when I bummed around, free to explore by day, sleeping where I could at night. I sought door wells, subway cars, even a graveyard. Startled to awake beneath the city sky or being shaken by a strange hand. Time to move along. Time to move along.

When it got really rough, I would go back to Pratt, occasionally bumping into someone I knew who would let me shower and sleep a night. Or else I would sleep in the hall near a familiar door. That wasn’t much fun, but I had my mantra, “I’m free, I’m free.” Although after several days, my other mantra, “I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” seemed to be in the forefront. I wasn’t worried, though. I just needed a break and I wasn’t going to give up. I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop, trying not to wear out my unwelcome.

It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.

It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.

— “Monday Children,” pp. 30-31

Writing about, or worse, ‘critiquing’ a book that contains something quietly private and unresolved seems to violate both its immortality and mortality as memory and history… as a sensitive reader, I hear many traces of sadness in Patti Smith’s voice and her narratives, past and present.

I was alerted about Just Kids by my husband, who first saw her in her maiden concert in Paris during the seventies. With “Because the Night” resonating in my head almost immediately, I was initially unsure what to expect from Patti Smith’s memoir. There was a mix of respect, distance, as well as the feeling of exclusion from a generation that isn’t mine. The myth of Rimbaud in shaping artistic consciousness and individuality, for example, is sometimes glorified beyond my scope of understanding. That said, I couldn’t help but ask, “How should I review a book that can only be highly recommended? And how should I recommend something that is a gift in itself?” Writing about, or worse, “critiquing” a book that contains something quietly private and unresolved seems to violate both its immortality and mortality as memory and history. I don’t know if others would feel the same way as I did, but as a sensitive reader, I hear many traces of sadness in Patti Smith’s voice and her narratives, past and present. The question that Mapplethorpe asked her during his dying moments, “Patti, did art get us?” also stayed with me for a long time.

Later, after finishing the book, I came across some blogs that commented on the memoir as sentimental. I have no problem with Patti Smith’s “sentimentalism.” Neither do I see anything “wrong” with being sentimental, especially when being emotionally honest (without being exhibitionist) actually necessitates more courage than not being so. Mapplethorpe died, she lives. From the days at Hotel Chelsea to their eventual separate choices and ways, they did invent something together, for her, for him, for them, and for us. By way of Just Kids, Patti Smith might have simply hoped to relive her memories and days with Mapplethorpe, but the writing itself has done much more — transcend.

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