It’s hard to start reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids without dwelling on her status as punk rock godmother, poet, legend. But it is really satisfying to see her talk about her humble beginning matter-of-factly, without glorification. She is just like us, but with the passion to keep making art no matter the circumstances.
This book is about passion. Partly about Smith’s desire to be a poet, partly a love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, a beaded necklace-maker turned sculptor turned photographer. They found each other in New York in the 60s, and drove each other to create and create and create. That each understood the other’s artistic temperament is the glue behind their relationship.
The book dwells mainly on the years before Smith and Mapplethorpe “made it,” when they were living at the Chelsea Hotel, five dollars meant wealth and the social and art world revolved around Andy Warhol and his Factory. At times the story is terrifying – Mapplethorpe’s drug trips, living on barely any food but endless cups of coffee, sleeping in a room with no heat and no plumbing. But it’s hard not to admire Smith’s acceptance of these awful conditions, because she is so sure that one day things would change. Her work, her art, would change her circumstances. Eventually it did, but the turning point is glossed over. One day, Smith is working at a bookstore, the next, she is releasing her first album. More detail about that progression would be interesting and deeply satisfying. But Smith treats the acceleration of her career as routine, focusing instead on Mapplethorpe (and occasionally Janis Joplin, Lou Reed and Edie Sedgewick).
Above all, the focus is on art for art’s sake, on writing and drawing and just creating. Smith’s first book of poetry earns more words than her first recording session. Mapplethorpe’s life, and death, has more text than Smith’s marriage to Fred Smith. The book is powerful and moving, and I both couldn’t put it down and forced myself to put it down because I didn’t want it to end. Hopefully Smith comes out with another book about her journey in the music industry. Highly recommended.