Just Kids by Patti Smith (Illustrated Edition)
On a sunny summer Monday in 1967, Patti Smith arrived via Greyhound in New York City. She took the subway from Port Authority in Manhattan to Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, where friends she hoped to stay with were students at The Pratt Institute. When she arrived at the address, however; she learned that they had moved. She found instead a bare-chested and beaded young man with green eyes and dark locks in a bed in the apartment’s back room. The two exchanged few words as the boy quickly arose and led Smith to a nearby apartment before cheerfully bidding her farewell. The boy was Robert Mapplethorpe, and Just Kids, Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir, is the lyrically told story of two artists coming of age and the bond between them.
Hungry and homeless, sleeping in parks, on benches, in subways and graveyards, Smith pounded the New York pavement, quickly landing a job at Brentano’s, a Manhattan bookseller where, it happened, Mapplethorpe also worked, albeit at a different location. They rarely crossed paths, but one night Mapplethorpe appears before Smith, an unlikely white knight in sheepskin and hippie beads, when she needs him most. Mapplethorpe’s arrival was to Smith, “as if a small portal of future opened.”
They scraped and saved and eventually were able to rent “an aggressively seedy” Brooklyn apartment walking distance from Pratt, where Mapplethorpe studied graphic design. Literally starving artists, they lived on books of art and poetry and little else. “We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed. We lay in each other’s arms, still awkward but happy, exchanging breathless kisses into sleep.”
Smith waxes poetic about influences that included Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol, Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake, and many others. It’s not long before she and Mapplethore have taken up residence at The Chelsea Hotel, a creative hotbed in its heyday, and find their heros walking among them.
Jane Friedman, who represented Jimi Hendrix and was also a fan of Smith’s poetry, sent Patti an invitation to the 1970 opening of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios. Hendrix arrives late to find Smith, too nervous to enter, sitting on the outside steps. The legendary guitarist joins her, admitting his own shyness, and regales her with his vision for the studio and his dream of gathering musicians from around the world in a Woodstock field to play together in unscripted discord that would eventually lead to a common musical language that he would then record in his new studio. Tragically, Hendrix died a mere 10 weeks after the opening of his studio.
Another wonderful anecdote during this time concerns a meeting Smith has with Allen Ginsberg which, as with many good stories, includes a case of mistaken identity. Ginsberg, along with Gregory Corso and William Burroughs, were among the many teachers who passed through the lobby of The Chelsea. About Corso, Smith writes, “He would always spell trouble and might even wreak havoc, yet he gave us a body of work pure as a newborn fawn.”
Smith’s first poetry reading was in 1971 at St. Mark’s Church. “I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.” After dedicating the evening to “criminals from Cain to Genet,” she opened singing “Mack the Knife” with guitarist Lenny Kaye accompanying, and she closed with “Ballad of a Bad Boy,” a poem she wrote for Sam Shepherd, again with Kaye. Attended by Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Anne Waldman and other luminaries of music, art and literature, the event was seminal for Smith, catapulting her into myriad writing, recording and publishing opportunities.
Mapplethorpe, having focused his energies on photography, finds his audience and, later, his mentor, patron, and lifetime companion in art curator Sam Wagstaff as Smith, after assembling the musicians who would form her band, begins her ascension as punk’s poet laureate, before long performing at Max’s Kansas City and alongside Television at CBGB.
Just Kids is Patti Smith’s deftly written and passionately recalled memoir of her lover, friend and fellow artist, Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she forged her bond in the creative process. It is her own song of innocence, and it is an inspirational and essential read for anyone striving to do creative work. Just Kids won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010; however, I read the illustrated edition published by Ecco in 2018. It is rife with drawings and photographs by both Smith and Mapplethorpe, and I highly recommend you check it out.