I grew up on classical music and progressive rock. I also grew up in 1990s Venezuela, where musical cliques were so closed-off in their own lanes, it was almost considered treason to listen, or even to admit to like, anything that was considered to be outside the approved bands within the genre. While in later years these cliques began to open up to a more general appreciation of all that could be considered “rock,” I grew up never listening or learning anything about entire genres, from pop, to soul, to hip hop, all the way to punk
That’s how I managed to go all my life not knowing anything about Patti Smith, an icon of 1970s punk, an influential and widely admired song writer, singer and writer. In fact, I found Patti Smith by pure chance. I was looking for great artists interviews on YouTube and after entering some magical query, an hour long interview with Smith came in the top. I clicked and was instantly enraptured by her long, profound answers, her vivid stories, and her ability to talk as if she was writing at the same time. Spellbound by the interview I saw online, I immediately bought and downloaded Just Kids, the book she was talking about on the video.
I really believe that certain books (or bands, or songs or artists) find us when we most need them, which is when we are ready to be moved or changed by them. I was more than ready to be found by Just Kids, a stunning memoir about Patti Smith’s early days in New York, when she was still a young and naive bookstore clerk trying to find her way in the art world. As if in a fairy tale, one day Smith briefly meets a sleeping, beautiful young man, who then reappears in her life as if by magic in a moment of great need. That young man was Robert Mapplethorpe, who was to become a prominent artist and photographer in the early 80s. Part love story, part historical chronicle of late 60s New York, Just Kids is also a lovingly rendered portrait of Mapplethorpe, from his early artistic efforts, to his later success and renown, and finally to his untimely death of aids in 1989.
Soon after meeting, Smith and Mapplethorpe started living together, and almost immediately also started working and creating together. Young and alone in New York, they were true starving artists, relying in the kindness and support of other artist in the city. Smith never glorifies this. In the very early days, when she still did not have a place to stay, she slept on the street, and then later, after she had found a job at the bookstore, she would sleep there after everybody had left. After she meets Mapplethorpe, she explains how hunger was a constant preoccupation, and how they scavenged around the city to find everything they needed to furnish their place.
In almost equal measure to their hunger, there was their preoccupation with art: the consumption of it, the search for it, the creation of it. Gifted with a prodigious talent, Mapplethorpe was quicker to find his calling than Smith, who was a voracious reader, but also an aspiring painter and poet. Mapplethorpe was extremely ambitious, not only for learning and improving his art making, but for recognition. Smith on the other hand was a special kind of free spirit, one for whom the search for art, the creation of meaning, was almost as natural as breathing. The emphasis was always on work: the work and effort required to produce a collage, a poem, an art installation in their own little apartment. She was also the breadwinner, as for many years it was her steady work at multiple bookstores that sustained them both financially.
Smith’s writing in Just Kids is gentle, yet full of a deep erudition that nonetheless feels natural and unaffected. She is a master at describing the origins of Mapplethorpe’s and her own work, the inspiration, the evolution, the meaning behind it. Her detailed and clear eyed description of Mapplethorpe’s evolution as a collage and installation artist, and later on the photographic work that made him famous, is insightful, loving, and full of admiration.
In describing her relationship with Mapplethorpe, she describes another way of being together that goes beyond love, sexual attraction, or friendship; it was a relationship between artists, symbiotic, often wordless. Theirs was a relationship that extended across time and consciousness, an unbreakable bond held together by their need, their instinct to transform experience into art. Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith worked together all their lives and beyond, even after Smith married her husband and moved to Detroit and Mapplethorpe stayed with his partner Sam in New York. Just Kids is the continuation of that life-long creative relationship.
No less fascinating is Smith’s description of her own discovery of music and poetry as the vehicles to best articulate her vision of the world. She was both fearless and cautious, taking many years to develop into the brilliant artist whose first album, Horses, is considered to be one of the most influential works of the American punk music scene.
This book has made me a fan of Patti Smith. She is somewhat of a contradiction: she is somebody who seems to live a life deeply immersed in symbolism and spirituality, yet her approach to seeking those things is rooted in work — the work that it takes to write a poem, to write a song, or compose a photograph. She seems to make no distinction between living and creating, elevating the process of creation to being the goal unto itself, whether it ends up in a concrete piece of art or not.
I had a profound reaction to Just Kids. Half-way into the book I had a breakdown and had to put it down. I wept one night in my bed holding my e-reader in my hands. I imagined Patti Smith like a fairy godmother, her long hair falling on the sides of her face coming to me and telling me in her extraordinary voice: “What you feel, what you want, is valid. Let yourself be moved, love what you love. Keep seeking, nurture your loves. Art is worth living for.”
Featured photo: Robert Mapplethorpe & Patti Smith, New York City 1969 by Norman Seeff.