“Just Kids,” Patti Smith’s 2010 National-Book-Award-winning memoir of her early life in New York City and her relationship with famed artist Robert Mapplethorpe, shows Smith to be a writer and storyteller of the highest order. The book succeeds in varied ways: it works as a snapshot of the artist community in the 1960’s and 70’s; as autobiography; as a portrait of the starving young artist; as homage.
The story is an interesting one, describing how Smith, a legend of 70’s punk rock, comes to her chosen medium as a musical artist. The descriptions of her early youth point to a difficult struggle, with poor, but loving parents. Late in the memoir, she discusses going home and mentions that her “father read us Plato”—obviously an interesting untold story there—so her youth must have been blessed with a family that appreciated learning and knowledge. She talks about reading Rimbaud while working in a Philadelphia textbook factory, so again, not a standard trajectory. She arrives in New York City in 1967 after a stint in college that ends when she gets pregnant. She gives the child up for adoption and reaches the city with not much more than a waitress uniform that her mother has given her—though she promptly abandons the uniform, recognizing that her quest is to be an artist.
Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe is rich and touching. Two young artists meet, form a strong bond, struggle together and apart, and gradually circle in on their chosen métiers. Smith’s discussion of her reaction to Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality is candid and contradictory—she understands and regrets at the same time. She describes a powerful bond with Mapplethorpe, one that survives everything and endures breakups, reunions, love triangles, separations, and growing apart.
The description of the New York City art scene is replete with all the names. But one is never left with the feeling that the work is an exercise in self-glorifying namedropping. Smith did have the relationship with Mapplethorpe; she did have a relationship with Sam Shepard and write a play, "Cowboy Mouth," with him; and she did hang out with Warhol, Joplin, Hendrix, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. This was not someone who was on the outskirts of the social scene and is struggling to come up with anecdotes about the leading artists of the time: they were all around her, particularly during her stay at the famous Chelsea Hotel.
Most interesting to me was the description of how she came to music as her professional medium. Her early years are described as ones bathed in reading, drawing, visual art, and poetry. While Mapplethorpe slowly zeroes in on photography, Smith attends a Jim Morrison concert at which she realizes that she can do what Morrison does on stage. But her youthful connections to music are occult as far as the reader is concerned, and this perhaps adds to one’s wonder that her path leads her to be a musician. It's a public poetry reading she gives with offbeat guitar accompaniment that gets the ball rolling—and it never stops. Her self-discipline is remarkable. Early on she is offered a record deal, but turns it down. This is a mysterious and wise move. She apparently recognizes that her life in art would benefit from more preparation and she shuns an early sell out.
The language of the book is beautiful. Smith speaks with precision and a simplicity of language that is schooled, not naive. The occasional rare or obscure word, always used out of necessity, shows her facility as a writer. Mostly this is a narrative story, a story about her lover and friend Mapplethorpe, so she uses simple language and eschews the highfalutin. Phrases and sentences can be wonderful: “We played similar games, declared the most obscure object treasure, and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion.” Or: “I learned from him that contradiction is often the clearest way to truth.” Smith is a skilled writer and storyteller.
This is a touching, lovely remembrance. It is a rewarding read and it further cements by deep admiration for Patti Smith.