“Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.”
— Patti Smith, Just Kids
In one of my favorite scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, two disheveled old men raise their glasses for a toast. One says, “To Paris in the 20s.” the other pauses for a moment, considering his own heroes: “To New York in the 70s.” Both are wistful of generations mythologized and eulogized, beloved and altogether gone. They were societies where artistic impulses thrived over commercial ones and yet, ironically, because of their brilliance and decadent grandeur, these urban neighborhoods have become prohibitively expensive and are thus unlikely to spawn the kind of anarchic creativity that marked those cities in more carefree, dangerous days. For those of us who were never there, the closest we may come are paeans from persons who knew it best.
It’s no surprise therefore that Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir of that heyday era should be a bestseller. New York in the 1970s: a crossroads of Avant-garde and street movements, hippies putting away tablas and sitars, giving way to a younger generation of punk kids turning on electric guitars and rage. Smith’s rise from a starving artist to household name straddles this evolution in taste and form, the arc from flower power giving way to the aesthetic fuck off. Those of us born in its aftermath can only YouTube those times with great envy, navigating our own generational malaise with characteristic longing. If that weren’t envy enough, Just Kids is a record of Smith’s “making it,” appreciated for her own peculiar hybrid of poetry, rock and roll, and shouting. Even if like me, you’re not a fan of her music, credit is due: rock stars aren’t born, they’re made and it takes time, luck, talent, and of course, the thing that counts most of all in the end, persistence.
The Kids Are All Right
Through it all, Smith had a friend in the battle, the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her closest friend and greatest confidante in those transformative years and for whose memory this memoir is indubitably dedicated. Smith writes tenderly of her memories of Mapplethorpe, the gay, pixie prince who became world famous for his Polaroids of S&M carnality and the censorious rebukes his work engendered. But in the Summer of 1967, they were ‘just kids,’ a couple of dreamers from the American suburbs. Smith left a factory job in Jersey to make it as a poet in New York (does that still happen anymore these days? the hungry poet in the big city?), sleeping in the park and taking day-old loaves from charitable bakers. In the beginning Smith had absolutely nothing to live on, save the faith she belonged somehow to New York and that it would be all right. We don’t know what might have happened otherwise, but it seems that her meeting Mapplethorpe might have saved her from danger or worse, the disaster of giving up and going back to where she came from, never to return.
Mapplethorpe dresses the dandy–when she fell in love with him he was into beads and a sheepskin vest but he went through a sailor boy phase and Lizard King leather, among other personas attempted and discarded, “searching, consciously or unconsciously for himself.” In 1967 he didn’t own a camera– for him photography was getting your image snapped on the Coney Island boardwalk. A talented dilettante, he dabbled in jewelry design, collage art, drawing; he did not read, though he was Smith’s first audience when she recited her poetry.
A lapsed Catholic obsessed with good and evil, he flirts with Satanism, tarot cards and the occult. Smith recalls there was something indefatigably childlike about him. He drinks chocolate milk and loves grilled cheese sandwiches. He could not keep a job– Patti was the breadwinner (she’s an ace at uncovering rare first editions, Henry James, The Golden Bough, for instance, and unloading them on customers when she worked at Scribners). As long as he followed his artistic aspirations, she was happy to provide for the both of them.Smith paints a picture of an enviably adorable couple: never mind they were among the beautiful people; they understood one another’s needs like few lovers could. That his homosexuality precluded longtime physical compatibility did not mean that their friendship could not thrive. Together they had their songs, signs, a coded language. Inspiration was the sustenance that they fed one another. Their mutual role-playing had always been founded on muse more than lover. Through it all, they are one both with and against the world: “Nobody sees things as we do, Patti,” Robert tells her.
In those days, an artist could catch a break or two that is difficult to contemplate happening today. Many struggling, broke, down-at-the-heels types stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel. Some went delinquent on their bills, trading in their portfolios to management as collateral. When Smith and Mapplethorpe arrived there in 1969, sans a dime and Robert suffering an abscessed mouth and ailing wisdom teeth, they did just that, trading in their work to Mr. Bard, the manager and shouter extraordinaire, as most of the residents were lousy with jobs, rent and various real-life obligations. Robert and Patti rented a small room with neither windows nor physical space to set up their workstations. Nevertheless it was the very best thing that could have ever happened to them, for if the art world is a beast (and many will attest it is exactly that), then they had landed themselves in its belly. The Chelsea Hotel had dirty shared bathrooms, an irresponsible clientele, and brownish tap water but it was also was a community within a larger society.
Smith and Mapplethorpe made fast friends, eventually finding themselves regulars at Max’s Kansas City, with its rowdy transgenders and Factory crowd, enjoying the Velvet Underground, the occasional house band. This was more Robert’s thing as he idolized Andy Warhol. Smith and Mapplethorpe were more conspirators than lovers at this point and she drifted into friendships with scenester Bob Neuwirth and Todd Rundgren. She learns intimately from poet Jim Carroll and the playwright, Sam Shepherd. Patti is privy to Janis Joplin’s boy troubles and Jimi Hendrix tells her his dream of a new musical language.
Smith’s own language sometimes feels that she read On the Road at an impressionable age and never quite got over it. Her prose has some affectations: she calls fellow Chelsea Hotel residents, “inmates… guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses.” Making art is “an unholy ritual.”She has hippie-dippy superstitions; birthdays of famous poets are often propitious. Hipspeak colors her interactions (maybe this reviewer, with his allegiance to many formalities of language would be too “square” for the scene he idealizes) and she and Robert often speak of magic. So she may have had a beat fetish, I will grant her this: she was a friend to Burroughs, Ginsberg tried to pick her up (he mistook her for a ‘pretty boy’) and she loaned money to Corso to support his junk habit.
There are a lot of famous names in Just Kids, but Smith does not drop them to prove her worth–she seems as much at awe at her good fortune as we are. But for all their fame, the rock stars and celebrity artists are only background characters here. The story through it all belongs to the kids, Patti and Robert. The memoir begins and ends on a cold day in March 1989, when Robert dies of AIDS complications. By then, they’d drifted apart, Smith to a family and recording career in Detroit, Mapplethorpe to a stellar artistic career as a photographer. They reconnect because of his illness and once in touch, the old patterns return and they understand anew a quality of friendship that is uniquely theirs. It’s a love story between friends and to feel Smith tell it, those impoverished years when Mapplethorpe was her greatest companion is worth all the gold records on the wall. A trip to Coney Island in 1969 suggests the purity of this friendship beautifully: “We were just ourselves that day, without a care… Only weeks before we had been at the bottom, but our blue star, as Robert called it, was rising. We boarded the F train for the long ride back, returned to our little room, and cleared off the bed, happy to be together.”
So what is a kid in New York City with paint on his hands a tumblr site that no one visits is supposed to take home from all this? It could happen to you too and that might help a person navigate optimistically the next couple months as he struggles to pay his rent and make the time to create something that might find an audience, or better, a champion.