A book review on Patti Smith’s lyrical memoir, Just Kids.
By IFC President, Lizzy Rand
Patti Smith, “the Godmother of Punk,” and Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversial taboo-busting photographer, were both born in 1946 at a time when “the last of the horse-drawn wagons” could be seen on the city streets. Patti describes this in her tenderly powerful memoir, Just Kids, which documents her extraordinary relationship with Robert and the end of Manhattan’s last great bohemian age.
As children, both Patti and Robert were dreamers, curiously yearning to expand their world and eagerly enthralled with their transcendent experiences. They soon betrothed themselves to art, Robert enrolling at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and Patti giving up her baby at age 19 to head to New York for a fresh start and a chance at a creative revolution. It was the summer of 1967, the summer Coltrane died, the summer of Elvira Madigan, and the summer of commotion and love, when Patti encountered Robert for the first time: he was an angelic young hippie shepherd sleeping in the back bedroom of her friend’s former apartment. Their meeting was brief, but thus fate introduced these young, perfectly bohemian, unknown kids, who would become roommates, friends, lovers, muses, and soul mates.
Robert and Patti lived in romantic poverty. They went to museums and only bought one ticket. They went to Coney Island, only able to afford one hot dog. They lived off day-old bread, Nescafe, and cigarettes. But what they devoted themselves to most was art. Patti and Robert would gather their pencils and sheets of paper and draw and write poetry like feral children into the night while listening to Tim Hardin’s delicate love songs and picturing the works of Warhol. The couple eventually gained tenancy in the Chelsea Hotel, a historic hotel that hosted Patti’s idol, Bob Dylan, and was a home for philosophical and artistic exchange. Patti and Robert slowly penetrated higher society, interacting with esteemed artists and musicians including Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers, Grace Slick, and Salvador Dali and frequenting Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Robert and Patti were inseparable lovers and partners until Robert shamefully came out of the closet as a hustling homosexual and confessed his acquirement of an STD. Nevertheless, the two kept their vow never to separate and remained artistic companions, social confidantes, and dear friends.
Smith dedicated herself to performance poetry, and her first reading with guitar accompaniment from Lenny Kaye introduced her as an up-and coming New York artist. Robert took an interest in photography and become known for his highly stylized black-and-white snapshots and controversial sadomasochistic images. As they grew to become legendary artists, the once youthful couple that could be seen wandering Washington Square Park slowly drifted apart as Patti traveled with her band, married, and moved to Detroit. They still remained kindred spirits and deeply held on to their youthful memories especially when Robert began experiencing complications due to AIDS. Robert and Patti had their last conversation in March of 1989 before Robert passed away. As she looked into the eyes of this youth cloaked in light, he expressed one last favor: she has to write their story. And so, she has.
Just Kids begins as a love story between two strangers and ends as an elegy. It celebrates New York City during the late sixties and seventies and its poor and starving, rich and prosperous, its artists and producers, and hustlers and rogues. Smith transports readers to the halcyon days for artists in New York City through her tales of interactions with Jimi Hendrix and Television, of life at the Hotel Chelsea, and of the denizens of Max’s Kansas City and Strand Bookstores. And she does this with vivid self-awareness and uncommon vulnerability. Her difficult journey to artistic fame is treacherous but ecstatic, and Just Kids is a beautiful book written on becoming an artist. But it is not simply the stories of funky-but-chic New York in the sixties and seventies that captures readers. The story of Robert and Patti, two feral-looking strangers bound in innocence and enthusiasm, is tender, beautiful, and extraordinary. They shared the sacred mystery of what it meant to be an artist, the struggle of poverty and homelessness, the affection of true companionship, and the loyalty of honest soul mates. Patti Smith is a phenomenal wordsmith, and she writes with a tone that is hilarious, delicate, and evocative.
So, go ahead and put on some Lou Reed or Television and get lost in the exuberant bohemian culture of New York City and the mystifying relationship between two of the country’s most momentous artists: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. And don’t be concerned by the fact that they are such remarkable artists because after all, they’re just kids.