Before she became the Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith was just some girl who came to New York in search of herself. We have a tendency to view her as always having been a rebel, guitar in hand, spouting her distinctive mix of poetry and invective at society. But the reality was that Smith came to New York as a refugee, uncertain of who she was and what she wanted to be. That's sometimes a bit hard to believe or realize, but in "Just Kids" Smith reveals just that: she wasn't one half as confident then as she is now, and that she had no idea what she was going to do once she arrived in New York. While this is true of almost everyone from her generation, it is somehow shocking and bizarre to ponder. More interesting was that her first lover and partner in New York was none other than future photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The bulk of "Just Kids" is Smith's recollection of Smith's early years in New York with Mapplethorpe and how they came to create their own image as artists and autuers and to craft their image and art. Again, it seems weird to think of either of them as being anything other than fully formed individuals, and that, in and of itself, seems supremely bizarre. We seldom think of the intervening events that came to create them as artists, yet here is Patti Smith lying bare exactly how she came to be what she became. The result is a fascinating and spellbinding narrative that you can scarcely set down. Ultimately Smith learns that Mapplethorpe is gay and both go on to find their own loves and their own directions in life and in art. In that degree "Just Kids" feels like only the beginning of a captivating story, the transition to another chapter, and I sincerely hope, a transition to another volume of memories, as I'm no doubt certain that Smith has a wealth of other memories than span well into the 80s, 90s and beyond. But for now I'm heartened to hear what she has to say as for now, the era before she became Patti Smith. And rather than being a trip down memory lane, "Just Kids" reminds us that everyone had to start somewhere, and success is never easy or certain. Smith's prose also wonderfully captures an era of New York City that has largely faded to the mists of time and memory. It is a time and place I was glad to revisit for a while. Immensely enjoyable and quite readable "Just Kids" is probably one of the best rock autobiographies I've ever read!
on January 25, 2010
Just Kids is Patti Smith's memoir of her and Robert Mapplethorpe's time on the edge, two kids who found each other on streets of New York and were determined to become artists.
Just Kids doesn't inundate the reader with biographical details about Mapplethorpe or too many of Smith, it`s not a diarists memoir but more of an impressionistic one. Smith writes like her prose is poetry, it flows easily over the page, and flows easily from scene to scene as she and Mapplethorpe struggle to define themselves and their art. What it does give is a sense of the person Mapplethorpe was, a person who cared about Smith, and she about him. Her insight into Mapplethorpe is both sympathetic and empathetic, without seeming to have the forced perspective of hindsight. It may be, but Smith's understanding and acceptance of Mapplethorpe's dualities seem contemporaneous to the moment. We're witness to the portentous moment Mapplethorpe is given his first camera, and when Smith was releasing her first album, Horses, she knew no one else but Mapplethorpe could do the cover photograph. Just Kids is interspersed with Mapplethorpe's photographs of Smith.
Smith has a good sense of humor about herself in this period, living at the Chelsea Hotel, Allen Ginsburg tried to pick her up because he thought she a good looking young man. Or how no one in her and Mapplethorpe's circle believed she was neither a heroin addict nor a lesbian.
Smith who claims among her influences, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, is firmly in the romantic vein, down to the presentation of the book with rough hewn page cuts and sepia wash, all combine to the nostalgic feel of the book. If someone were to write a memoir for me, this is what I would wish it to be.
on February 17, 2010
Have you ever awoken from a dream and yearned to tell someone close by all the seemingly concrete details that made so much sense in unconsciousness, but upon consciousness are rendered incomprehensible, even worse, banal when spoken? Or, have you ever had to retreat midway through a story about how interesting a scene or city was to have experienced with that sad qualifying statement: "Well, I guess you had to be there," those blank stares and yawns from listeners way too much to bear?
Well, I have. Patti Smith has not, at least not in the case of her exquisite new memoir, "Just Kids". The difference between me and her is that my attempts to transcend mere description when writing about my past always deflates either into senseless name dropping or banal "my summer vacation essay" style explorations, whereas Smith, in "Just Kids," transcends all the pitfalls of the memoir genre and tells a poignant tale of two struggling artists in the late 60s - 70s in New York City--her and Robert Mapplethorpe--without sounding pompous, pretentious or boring.
It's always the inexplicable that's most interesting. If you strip away what's ineffable about the spirit of a defining period of time you are left mainly with the banal: eating, sitting, hanging out, arguing, making money, paying rent, and so on. That's why memoirs are so difficult to execute and only a talented writer tempered with restraint, such as Patti Smith, can adequately do the genre any justice.
As I was reading "Just Kids" I was continually struck with just how easy this book could have degenerated into a self-absorbed, indulgent tale of bohemianism and name dropping. The story itself is set up to lend itself to this sort of abuse. The fact is that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were in New York City during an especially vibrant and exciting time for art and artists and otherwise bohemian types. The beats, rock and roll, which was still relatively new and exciting, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground: the list goes on: see, I'm name dropping; it's hard not to do!
Instead, Smith uses a contemplative voice to recount her and Mapplethorpe's travails as they both went from two unknown starving artists to the great stars they later became. Where it could have been an appallingly boring story of braggadocio, such as telling the story of their ascendancy from front of the house to the "round table" at Max's Kansas City, instead is done masterfully through Smith's self-depreciation and reluctance.
As much as the reader gets an insight into Robert Mapplethorpe, his personality, sexuality, and art, he still never lets the mystery of his character bleed through, certainly not a two dimensional character. In a way, he's the one holding the reader in suspense throughout the book. This demonstrates just how talented Smith was to carry this off--and how telling! for it was ultimately Smith who never completely came to an understanding of him. For instance, on numerous occasions she states her bewilderment at a finished piece of art, or his subject matter (the gay S&M underworld of New York City, e.g.) or the sudden choices he would make, for instance running off to San Francisco. The true nature of the cohesion in their relationship was not in the things Mapplethorpe did, per se, but in the transparency of the processes behind Mapplethorpe's art and life. Isn't it the processes of an artist that other artists are most drawn to?
In some key ways, the two were very different. He was supremely ambitious and she was content at creating her art in obscurity, at least in the beginning. In a way, she was the grounding figure, ultimately benefiting him with some stability, whereas he was the ambitious figure ultimately benefiting her with some will to achieve. What a perfect match! They were each other's greatest champions! and it's this element that is the most important narrative thread throughout the book. Could they have done it without each other?
Smith's perspective on this fascinating period in New York's art-bohemian scene is insightful. Having an avid interest in this cultural phenomenon, I especially enjoyed it. I am familiar with many of the people who fill these pages and the intimacy with which Smith tells the story brings me closer to their cultural milieu.
In the end, the two (as happens so often in life) drifted apart: not out of transgression, betrayal, loss of interest, but because they were maturing and finding their own ways to carry on the art and life they dreamed of together, that they promised one another they would never abandon. She eventually moved to Detroit to marry Fred Sonic Smith of MC5 and he stayed in NYC.
The last chapter describing Mapplethorpe's death and Smith's presence during it is nothing less than heart wrenching. I knew it was coming, but was not prepared for the impact his death would have on me that afternoon. This is where Smith really shines! Her tender ruminations on the dying and death of her lover and friend, her soul mate, is perfect. She adroitly straddles the line between sentimentality and description masterfully, never letting you stray too far into the sadness of it (as she did not let herself get lost in the despair of his death) while also avoiding mere description, leaving you to perhaps, say to yourself: "Ah, drag," close the book and go on about your business. This book sticks with you.
As a side note: God! how I would have loved being there in New York City at this time! I grew up in North Jersey in the seventies. I was too young to have had access to NYC during most of the period discussed in this book. But, even if I did, I was unlucky to have been a philistine Jersey redneck (which is different than any other redneck, but not necessarily in a good way). I did actually go to NYC often in the late-late 70s and early 80s, but thought it was bohemian enough to walk around the West Village and hang out in Washington Square Park doing whippets until one in the morning. How sad. What a squandered opportunity! Oh well, I guess there's a reason why I went to diesel school, instead. Reading Patti Smith's book, at least, allowed me to live vicariously for awhile.
I also recommend seeing Patti Smith live. She drew blood for us, literally. I will never forget her.
on January 15, 2011
I agree with most reviewers who found Patti Smith's memoir of her early years in New York and her account of her relationship with artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to be moving. Besides her depiction of her muse-artist relationship with Mapplethorpe (each was the other's muse), I liked reading about New York in the 70s, a place and a time like none other. This book seems to fall into a genre I'm finding especially compelling these days--the dual biography. These tend to be less bogged down by detail and get right to the essence of what makes their subjects biography-worthy. If you're interested in dual biographis of artits, check out Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock and Elaine and Bill [de Kooning]: Portrait of a Marriage (now out of print).
My warning to Kindle readers: The Kindle edition does not include any of the photographs found in the print edition. These aren't essential to understanding Smith's narrative, but it would have been nice to see them as I was reading the book, especially since some were likely Mapplethorpe's.
on February 20, 2010
I just finished reading Patti Smith's "Just Kids." I read it like a glutton. Scarfing it up, page by page, long into the night. Occasionally I would have a glass of wine, or put it down to think back to my own memories of New York from the late '60's +. It's a book filled with possibilities. Patti's mantra, possibilities, "one who siezes possibilities," sung in "Land." It's a book of drive, vision, ambition, talent, risk, verve, destiny, love, fidelity, friendship.
I had to stop occasionally to wipe away a tear. The New York City of Patti's book doesn't exist anymore. Back then it was city on verge of bankruptcy. Back then you could actually afford to live in Manhattan, have a low pay job, go out at night, and live your dreams. If you spent your food money on art or seeing a band or nursing the two drink minimum you could see greatness every day of the week. New York City is culturally dead now. There is no community, art, music, culture. There is no longer a sea of possibilities. But as "Just Kids" sanctifies, testifies, signifies, artists will find a way. It's probably out there in the Rust Belt - with dead shells of former factories - or in the Heartland - or somewhere in America with foreclosing homes and decay - or some other country - somewhere - it's happening. Artists find a way because they can't help themselves. They are ornery and can't be contained. That's the message in "Just Kids," have a dream, make an oath, keep it real, do it. Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!
But back then, back in the day, the Dead Zone was New York City. We spilled out of Jersey, Long Island, BBQ Bridge & Tunnel crowd, who could no longer be contained. I first saw Patti on WOR on a Sunday night talking about graffiti subway cars as Jackson Pollack. I have "Seventh Heaven" and "Witt" with her evaporating signitures, "Ha Ha Houdini" in hand-minted offset typeface. She was the one with the true grit to climb out of the audience and get up there and do it.
Robert Mapplethorpe I came to appreciate. It took me a while to warm to him. It took me a while to warm to him in "Just Kids." Patti makes a complex man human, and it's a loving portrait of an artist often sensationalized. Patti keeps at it until you see him through her eyes. As Sam Shepard paraphrased, his dream wasn't my dream. But it's a dream she knew well, and she uses all her talent to make it real for us.
In "Just Kids," Patti and Robert's finding one another thru pure happenstance, is the stuff of kismet. Their support and love for one another is palpable. There is new information about both of them in this book that nobody but they could possibly know. This, if nothing else, makes this book necessary and vital.
Nothing I've read about either Patti and Robert comes close to this book. I thought I'd read, heard, knew, everything about Patti Smith. We have mutual friends. I was at the same places, at the same time, as she. Robert Mapplethorpe is equally well documented. This is the stuff of the Inner Sanctum.
God, what a testiment. This is a great gift. Robert would be proud. He'd say, "Patti, no!" Thank you.
on April 18, 2011
I'm not exactly sure what I'm expecting when I read these rock/celebrity autobiographies (Clapton is another example), but it's not this. I kept thinking, "she's a poet?" The writing was just so drab and staccato. "We went here and did this." "So and so died and we were sad." "My boyfriend reveals that he's been having a homosexual affair, and I am confused." It all read so superficial. I know a lot of the reviews have mentioned name-dropping, and I understand that the people were part of the experience, so she has to name them. The problem is that she says so little about them that is meaningful. We are just supposed to take it on face value that their art "was good". She only describes about 2 of Mapplethorpe's projects in any detail, and she shares almost nothing of her work - so we are just left with her declaration that "it was solid, and it was good, and I knew we were on the right path". It just doesn't tell you any more than you would have been able to get on Wikipedia about the dates, events, people, and especially the "art" - actually, you may even get more by reading Wikipedia. I have to say, I did complete the book because I wanted to find out what happened(that's why 3 stars). Unfortunately, what happened was a big bunch of nothing. Sorry, Patti, I think you could have done a lot better.
on July 8, 2012
I realized this was a fairy tale when I read this of Patti's husband, Fred Smith: "He was a king among men and men knew him." That's such a weird, Biblical-sounding thing to say of one's husband, plus I knew from Gillian McCain & Legs McNeil's PLEASE KILL ME that Fred had an alcohol problem. But what really disappointed me was that Smith so swiftly glossed over the decision to leave the life of art she'd built in New York with Robert. That's what the whole book is about! And in one line, she ditches it, all of it, for a king of men.
That's when I saw that this is not a true story. It's a bedtime story. I love Patti Smith, and I still really enjoyed the book, but why must she hold back so much from us? Must it all be rainbows and butterflies? I was especially bothered by the scanty descriptions of Patti's sexual feelings (oh gosh, she'd never really thought about sadomasochism outside of the covers of Genet). I'd guess that being in love with a gay SM hustler is complicated, if not painful; it might even be exciting. Yet she describes it as laughter and affection, then lights outs on the life she's built with Robert for a man who was "a king of men and men knew him." If I was an interpreter of the unconscious, I might point out the references to domination and homosexuality in this description of her husband (it's all she gives us--we might as well analyze it), but I'll be polite and just say this: I don't buy it. I sense that something has been painted out of this book.
I wanted Smith to say more about why she left music and New York to be a wife and mother. It truly is the ending of this particular story, the story of her life as a young artist. I'm not sure if she's doing an Andy Warhol here and creating her own image before someone else does or what, but I believe that wisdom is linked to truth I don't trust this particular gap in the story.
After all, this is PATTI SMITH! We know her work. She's drawn to the underworld, the criminal, and the boundaries between things; we see it in her male identification (the clothes, her tomboy past, her haircut based on Keith Richards, her idol Bob Dylan), her love of Genet and Burroughs (gay and rough sex), the serrated aesthetic of punk rock. Hers is a palatte that contains a lot darkness, conflict, sex, drugs, and violence. This is the world she choose; this is the world she helped create. To treat these conflicts so blithly, she has to be either stupid or disingenuous; I'm going with disingenuous.
Patti Smith was broke and hungry when she met Robert Mapplethorpe, high on LSD, at a park in the summer of 1967. Smith would become the "Godmother of Punk" and the rebel poet and rocker. Mapplethorpe would become a world-famous, often hated, photographer of sadomasochistic images and self-portraits with bull-whips.
Almost immediately the two became lovers and the closest of friends. Smith writes, "we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust." They went through poverty, obscurity, drugs, fame and the AIDS that would kill Mapplethorpe.
When Smith was a young girl, the sight of a swan produced a transcendent moment of being: "The swan became one with the sky . . . and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds." This is the way Smith would think and why she was so good at what she did.
This is a real human love story and certainly worth reading -- especially for those of us who were young and eager to change the world in those days.
- Susanna K. Hutcheson
on January 14, 2011
Poor writing a lot of the time, with interesting moments.
I went to youtube to hear Patti sing, and was moved and involved immediately.
But in this book the unending name dropping, and the even more unending love-of-Robert stuff... (Robert seemed like a user and a prick)... AND the constant self-lauditory 'we are artists' stuff... made me sad and disappointed.
on December 30, 2010
I confess that I never cared for the art of Patti Smith. I have a few of her albums, but I never play them, and when I saw her perform live, I thought she was merely trying to be the female Iggy, so I kept calling for "I Wanna Be Yer Dog." (I hereby apologize for my juvenile behavior.) I thought even less of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose fame was really notoriety for having displayed some naughty photos and for having a remarkably elastic sphincter. (Maybe that's fine art, and maybe it's not.)
So it was that I was in no hurry to pick-up "Just Kids," and when I did, my intent was focused on ridicule rather than appreciation. Boy, was I ever wrong! Not since Await Your Reply has a book so completely turned me around, and my opinion of Ms. Smith has skyrocketed.
The quality of the writing is superb throughout. There are neither defective sentences nor errant grammar (except for pg. 233, where it's obviously intentional). In a day when publishers consider proofreading and editing to be unnecessary expenses, to be able to produce a book of this quality is an accomplishment. Yeah, yeah -- she occasionally lapses into somewhat purple prose, but it's all heartfelt, and there's no artifice to it. It's a beautiful story told with great love and emotion. Not quite up to the level of Louis de Bernières, but that she can be compared with him is the highest praise I can offer.
However, I have some questions. (I always have questions.)
In the early chapters of "Just Kids" Ms. Smith states that she didn't smoke and so had to steal Mapplethorpe's cigarettes when she was to pose with one. She also says that she took no drugs until late in her relationship, about 1973. Well, that's very nice, but when I saw her perform live in the 1970s, she told this story about how she and her girlfriend would take speed and drive around for hours following the lines of power corridors, all the while chain-smoking Gauloises cigarettes. (The second time I witnessed her tell this story, the car was a Corvette.)
And in her early poem/rap, "Pis Factory," she tells of taking a "big swig of Romilar" before confronting the straw boss. Now, that's a pretty heavy high (we call it "Robotrippin'" here), so was she telling the truth then, or is she telling the truth now?
Furthermore, there is much in this book which makes me suspicious of writer's embellishment. If "Just Kids" is to believed, Ms. Smith is the most erudite person in the nation. She finds all these autographed first editions for practically free, and sells them at a handsome profit. I've been haunting bookstores for just as long, and I know a lot of book collectors, and I don't know anyone with such phenomenal luck.
But more than anything, I look askance at her account of arriving in The Big Apple penniless, but meeting a protective flower child and quickly making her way into the inner circles of the city's celebrated intelligentsia. Yeah? Well, it so happens that, as all my friends emigrated to California, in the spring of 1968 I hitchhiked to NYC, and from the minute I stepped off the subway, I was continually harassed and threatened by rip-off artists, sociopaths, thugs and creeps. She tells of having to sleep in doorways or in the park, but each time I tried that, within twenty minutes, a hand would begin going through my pockets or trying to pull my trousers off. On two occasions, someone tried to remove the shoes from my feet. I had a small cardboard suitcase containing two pairs of socks, a plaid shirt, a street map and a notebook, but somebody stole it. Try sleeping in an alley, and within ten minutes a rat would scamper over your face, followed by more rats testing to see if you were dead enough to eat. I've never seen more rats in my life.
The sidewalks of the Lower East Side were packed with thousands of vagrant kids (like me, like her), and at each corner there were parents handing out flyers and showing photos of their dear missing child. Every street had a platoon of panhandlers demanding money. ("Spare change? Spare change? Help me out bro'. Hey! DON'T WALK AWAY. I'M TALKIN' TO YOU!"). Whatever pittance you possessed, someone would be trying to take it from you, and the number one rule of Manhattan was AVOID EYE CONTACT. No jobs were to be had except for messengers downtown, but you had to know the city like the back of your hand to be hired. If you spoke other than New Yawk patois, they cursed at you.
I ate out of garbage cans and dumpsters (the small, old-fashioned kind), but the good eats were in west-side dumpsters, where older bums had claimed priority rights, and if you tried to get even a scrap of their surplus of gourmet meals, they'd threaten you with a broken bottle or other makeshift weapon. And don't get me started about Avenue A.
Unlike Ms. Smith, the famous Chelsea Hotel was far beyond my means, and I roomed in a flophouse, the Greenwich Hotel on Bleecker St., where everything was covered in a layer of white powder (10% DDT). The rooms were smaller than a jail cell (any jail cell that I've ever been in), but the doors locked, which was a blessing, because all night, strange hands would be testing the door.
Like Ms. Smith, I wrote all the time (until my notebook was stolen), so I tried to get a job at the East Village Other, but not only were they uninterested in my talent (such as it is), they were really rude and dismissive. (I did, however, make money selling their paper at the free concerts in Central Park.) No one, not in Washington Square Park, not at the free concerts in Central Park, smoked pot. Although broken syringes were a common item of litter, the drug of the realm was speed, and everyone was dealing this counterfeit Dexedrine ("brown & clears") that did nothing but make you sick to your guts.
In sum, contrary to the urbane intellectual utopia that Ms. Smith limns, I attest that Manhattan was the most depressing, most violent, sickest, meanest, filthiest, uncool, wretched, bum scene on earth. I walked the same streets as did she, but I saw no one famous, and no one bought me anything. I saw neither Burroughs nor Ginsberg nor Mailer nor Wolfe nor Hendrix nor Joplin nor Kooper nor Kalb nor Guthrie nor Stampfel nor Van Ronk. The Manhattan she depicts seems like an alternate universe to me, and I suspect hers to be the most fanciful tale since L. Frank Baum's.
(ADDED LATER) This is a book for squares. This is a book for women who also admired Madonna, but when they got to college, that was uncool, so they switched to someone artsy, like Patti Smith. To get a glimpse of the *real* Patti Smith, read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (the Kindle edition will do). It perfectly depicts the bum scene, the callow, pretentious, pointless, filthy (literally), diseased (literally), narcissistic facade that was --and is-- Manhattan. Patti Smith doesn't want you to read Please Kill Me. Think of it as the parts she left out of her memory . . . er, memoir.