In this memoir, singer-songwriter Patti Smith shares tales of New York City : the denizens of Max's Kansas City, the Hotel Chelsea, Scribner's, Brentano's and Strand bookstores and her new life in Brooklyn with a young man named Robert Mapplethorpe--the man who changed her life with his love, friendship, and genius.
Just Kids is the perfect title for Patti Smith's autobiography of her early life as a struggling artist in New York in the late 1960's and early 1970's. She looks back on those times with nostalgia, some pride and an adults view of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which forms the essential core of this book.
Mapplethorpe went on to become an important voice in the photographic world of the 1970's and 1980's. It was a time before the advent of digital photography where care and hard work in the studio could lead to stunning results, especially in the medium of black and white, however when Patti met Robert in 1967 they were "just kids". Mapplethorpe was painstakingly putting together a portfolio of his drawings, paintings and collages, whilst trying to earn a living as a casual labourer. Patti got a more regular job in a bookshop and under Robert's influence put together her own portfolio of poetry, writing and drawing. Their existence was very much hand to mouth often relying on friends for floor space or handouts, but their belief in their own talents, their determination to succeed and the mutual support that they gained from their relationship saw them through. Smith does an excellent job of describing these early years when they sacrificed everything except their love for each other to succeed in the world of art. Their precious portfolios went with them everywhere and were even used as collateral to gain themselves a foothold in the famous Chelsea Hotel.
Smith and Mapplethorpe realised that all the talent in the world would not be enough to get the success they craved; it was equally important to know the right people. Patti staked out the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel (this was more a question of necessity in the early days as they were sharing the smallest room in the establishment) and they both hung out in Max's bar in the evenings, where Andy Warhol's people congregated. They needed to be accepted by the "in" crowd to stand a chance of securing a patron, a commission, or collaborations with other artists. Throughout their struggles Patti's support for Robert was unwavering even when he experimented with drugs, explored the S & M gay scene and found male lovers, eventually moving in with a male partner. She was just as sure that Robert would always be there for her.
[Just Kids] has become a best selling autobiography and you have to look beyond the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe to discover why. After all they are hardly household names. Patti Smith went on to become a rock star but she was hardly a mega name and while some people may have heard of Mapplethorpe it would mostly be because of a certain notoriety.
The book would obviously appeal to anyone interested in the 1970's rock scene (me for instance) particularly as Patti Smith rose to stardom along with the burgeoning New Wave scene centred around the CBGB's club. It would also appeal to people interested in Robert Mapplethorpe's photographic work (me again) as Smith gives an excellent account of his influences and how he took up photography as his mode of expression. (I was also curious about their relationship as I had always pegged Mapplethorpe as a gay man). The book has a wider appeal because it seems to accurately describe the life and times of struggling artists in the 1970's New York scene. Not only is there plenty of name dropping, but there is a real feel for the time and the place. Smith takes us inside the Chelsea Hotel, she describes how two outsiders gradually wormed their way into the art scene, she tells of sickness and wretchedness and how two kids survived the pitfalls and how they were touched by the early deaths of so many shooting stars with whom they may have rubbed shoulders; it captures the atmosphere of the times brilliantly.
Above all though it is a love story tinged with tragedy and this I think explains it's widest appeal. Patti was Robert's earliest muse and he supported her in whatever venture she undertook. When they drifted apart mainly because of Mapplethorpe's need for a homosexual lover, there was still an important connection between them and Smith is at her best telling this story with honesty and feeling that is deeply affecting.
I read this book before going to see a major retrospective of Mapplethorpe's photographs which is showing in Paris this summer at the Grand Palais and at the Rodin Museum. Patti Smith was Mapplethorpe's earliest model and he took photos of her for her album covers, he also took many self portraits and seeing all these pictures on show really did bring the two characters to life. An excellent read which I would rate as 4 stars.
Just Kids is a sweet, charming account of the time Patti and Robert spent together--as lovers, as friends, as growing artists--in New York in the late sixties and early seventies. Smith's prose is lovely, at times oddly formal, but always evocative and fun. She recounts their extreme poverty, as she worked as a bookseller at Scribner's to support them, while Robert did odd jobs and both worked on their art. They lived among artists and poets and Robert aspired to society, first working them into the Warhol set (although rarely in the immediate orbit of the man himself) and then beyond.
Smith's story is packed with anecdotes of meetings--sometimes chance and fleeting, sometimes of longer duration and intensity--with such people as Jimi Hendrix (who took pity on her when he came upon her, sitting on the steps to his Electric Ladyland studio but too shy to go in, and chatted her up for a few minutes) and Allen Ginsberg (who bought her a sandwich and coffee at the Automat when she didn't have enough money, and several minutes into their meal together looked at her intently and asked "Are you a girl?" She got the picture immediately, but he said "my mistake," and they continued their meal amiably).
Just Kids is not so much a study of the development and growth of the art itself as it is about the two kids becoming artists. Smith's narrative skims across the taking off of their two careers like a stone across a pond, touching down lightly here and there with a story or an anecdote or a description of a photograph or a poem. The book is illustrated with Smith's drawings and Mapplethorpe's glorious photographs, and scattered throughout are poems and songs (including, in the coda at the end which tells of Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS in 1989, the last photos he took of Smith and her family and the poem she wrote for his memorial service at the Whitney Museum).
Smith moved to NYC to follow her creative dreams, and Mapplethorpe rescued her from life on the streets. Though they were both very poor, living with little food in tiny hotel rooms and unfurnished apartments, their love for each other, and their reciprocal artist-muse relationship kept them alive. They were artists who felt compelled to create, and they challenged each other to experiment with new mediums and subjects. Mapplethorpe eventually reached success with his photography, and Smith with her music, though she is also an accomplished artist and poet. Though they did not last as a couple, Smith and Mapplethorpe were soul mates, and friends until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.
I found Smith's writing inspirational - her musings on finding her place in the world, finding her purpose, made me examine my own life. She followed her dreams, and her belief in her own success proves her to be a far braver person than most. Just as Smith found motivation in the musicians and artists of her day - Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Andy Warhol - future performers are sure to look to Just Kids as a defining moment in their own creative careers. I may not be an artist, but I too find great inspiration in the music and words of Classic Rock icons - and definitely in those of Patti Smith.
Just Kids doesn’t inundate the reader with biographical details about Mapplethorpe or too many of Smith, it‘s not a diarists memoir but more of an impressionistic one. Smith writes like her prose is poetry, it flows easily over the page, and flows easily from scene to scene as she and Mapplethorpe struggle to define themselves and their art. What it does give is a sense of the person Mapplethorpe was, a person who cared about Smith, and she about him. Her insight into Mapplethorpe is both sympathetic and empathetic, without seeming to have the forced perspective of hindsight. It may be, but Smith’s understanding and acceptance of Mapplethorpe’s dualities seem contemporaneous to the moment. We’re witness to the portentous moment Mapplethorpe is given his first camera, and when Smith was releasing her first album, Horses, she knew no one else but Mapplethorpe could do the cover photograph. Just Kids is interspersed with Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Smith.
Smith has a good sense of humor about herself in this period, living at the Chelsea Hotel, Allen Ginsburg tried to pick her up because he thought she a good looking young man. Or how no one in her and Mapplethorpe’s circle believed she was neither a heroin addict nor a lesbian.
Smith who claims among her influences, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, is firmly in the romantic vein, down to the presentation of the book with rough hewn page cuts and sepia wash, all combine to the nostalgic feel of the book. If someone were to write a memoir for me, this is what I would wish it to be.
I was familiar with her words in two ways: first, from her poetry and lyrics, wild and cryptic visions, with flashes of dazzling intelligence and breadth of influence; second, from her interviews years ago where she pushed an aggressively harsh, crude and proletarian pose. I was a bit unprepared for the mannered voice of Just Kids.
In this book, she looks back at her relationship with famed and controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, conveying memories softened by time and artifice. And that, I think, (that softening) is really at the heart of my mixed feelings for the book.
She suffuses the book with a warm glow, from which all sharp pain has been removed. She paints a careful portrait of herself and Mapplethorpe as totally absorbed in art, sublimating all other concerns to that, not bothered at all by missing meals. I'm not sure how much of that to trust, how much is truth, versus self-deception, versus deliberate artifice. Given the meek, bookish, clean and sober persona she attributes to herself, I suspect a great deal of it is mean to be more true in spirit than in fact. Note that she very carefully controls what she says. One obvious point she never addresses is that of her own sexuality, nor what inclined her to the relationships she had.
The more obvious faults really don't bother me in the least. Certainly, she thinks a great deal of herself. It's not exactly unheard of for artists to have an ego, and no one familiar with Patti Smith would have expected any less. In fact, I thought her egotistical superiority has, if anything, mellowed a bit with age.
It's also a common criticism of this book that she "name drops." And my god, the book is full of names. But I think that accusation rather misses the point of what she's trying to do. She isn't name dropping in the usual sense of basking in these people's reflected glory. It's the exact opposite of that kind of insecurity. She's much more scouring her past for signs and portents of the celebrities she and Mapplethorpe would become. It's egotism, proof of he status as chosen by fate. She isn't saying "I'm cool cuz I like, met Hendrix, y'know?" She's saying that these were little indications that destiny was pursuing her.
Overall, I'd say, an interesting if flawed book, well worth the time to read, but no masterpiece.
Smith compares her childhood to Mapplethorpe’s with a nice eye for detail. Even then, art and poetry was a refuge from her dull career prospects, though her family was more supportive than Mapplethorpe’s. In New York, Smith describes a long period of poverty and at times homelessness. After a couple chance meetings, Smith and Mapplethorpe instantly connected and became inseparable both in work and love. Though the pair found comfort in each other and their art, they were always dealing with money problems, cramped apartments, lice and illnesses. The first section of them together has a wonderful sheen of idealism and nostalgia despite the continual scraping for money. Smith relates their occasional joys and the steady work they did together. She notes that she often was blocked but Mapplethorpe was always working. When he became withdrawn, she assumed it was an artistic problem. He eventually revealed that he wasn’t sure about his sexuality, left for a while, then came back with a boyfriend. Smith did not handle the revelation well and after some unhappiness, they got back together. Moving into the Chelsea Hotel was a new chapter in their work and life.
At the hotel, they met various people in the underground and avant-garde art scene in NY. Mapplethorpe was determined to get in with famous artists and high society but Smith preferred to stay with their circle. She did meet a number of people who encouraged her and gave her opportunities to act and perform. The rift between the couple widened when Mapplethorpe started a relationship with one of their acquaintances – a man – but they still remained dedicated to each other and their art. Sometimes this section could be a bit like a list of famous people they met but Smith keeps the focus on their relationship. They both worried about the other finding success, making suggestions and proud of accomplishments even when their romantic relationship was troubled. Mapplethorpe had two supportive partners who helped him make connections in the art world and enabled him to focus on his work. He transitioned to photography and Smith describes the start of her music and performances and ends when her career takes off and their time of living together ended. The last couple chapters deal with Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS related complications. Smith promised him to tell the story of their relationship and this fine book is the result.
As a woman myself, I must say that after having read Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Anthony Kields, Johnny Cash, James Brown, Sting, Tina Turner, Suzi Quatro, I had expected a good bio by own gender. I am saddened, somewhat ashamed by the passivity of women easily played back and forth via male forces. Why do we women have so little to say about our own art? Who cares what we wore on a special occasion in NYC(unless we are models)? Why not write about us instead of what others say about us? Everyone knows we "look" decent, but it's less worth concerning about than writing about who we really are, what we think of our brief or not so brief encounters with so-and-so, baby! My real concern is, did Smith come to grips, did she become her own person, not just a mirror for men? This question remains unanswered.
It is an absolute pleasure to read about all of this from the perspective of one of the last great rock and roll poets of the age. Every fan of New York, poetry, music and art should have a copy of this excellent book in their collection.
Smith headed to New York from New Jersey to pursue her passion, art. Along the way she met up with Mapplethorpe, who rescued her from a bad date, and the two become best of friends and lovers. Inseparable, if not physically then in spirit, they remained by each others side until Robert's death from AIDS in 1989.
While Patti traveled to Paris, Robert went on to discover different relationships with men. It seems, back in the 70s, that it wasn't always possible to be openly gay and and perhaps it was something that he continually fought with himself. He kept a physical relationship with Patti for some time despite the evidence that he preferred men. While I can't imagine how that could make for a happy life, denying part of who you are, being with Patti obviously made him very happy.
Smith describes living at the Chelsea Hotel and hanging out with the likes of Jimi, Janis, Burroughs, and Harry Smith. And a lot more; those two really got around. She also chronicles the "luck" and hard work that helped make Mapplethorpe and herself the legends that they are today.
As I grew older, I also grew fairly tired of the harsh, dissonant sound of punk. It seemed to me it became an affectation rather than a belief, an excuse rather than a stand. But I never grew tired of Patti Smith and her raspy, atonal vocals and raw, poetic lyrics. After awhile though, she disappeared and I forgot about her and her music/art.
Until I read a review of Just Kids, which I knew I had to get my hands on.
Just Kids is the story of Smith and her lover/friend/soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, a trailblazer in his own right. Smith’s elegant, lyrical prose begins with her own childhood and eventually blends into her early life in NYC, where she wandered the streets alone, until she met Mapplethorpe.
She describes their early life together as one full of discovery and expression — both creating art as they felt it and experienced it in their daily lives. Objects held great importance for Smith and Mapplethorpe – how objects are made, used, treasured, seen. Smith used words and music to describe, while Mapplethorpe used the camera and both succeeded in making us see things differently.
Smith opens a window into the NYS art scene of the 70s and 80s, populated by such people as Andy Warhol and his entourage. While she writes about living and interacting with people now considered icons, Smith makes them all seem like regular human beings living out their purpose. None of the woke up one day and said “I’m going to create an icon today.” Instead they simply lived their lives and created as they went.
Art was as natural to them as breathing.
Throughout it all, Smith gives a human voice to Mapplethorpe, who continues to be considered one of the most controversial artists ever. He was just a beautiful boy trying to help people look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary.
Smith handles Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS with gentleness and authentic remorse. She uses a number of his photos of her throughout the book which reveal a stark but elegant beauty. Her account of Mapplethorpe’s last days and the aftermath of his death is heartbreaking.
Just Kids is a beautiful book and well worth the reading.
Mapplethorpe asks Smith at the end, “Did Art get us, Patti?” Maybe it did.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe meet each other after basically running away from home to pursue a career in the arts in NYC during the 1970s.
They fall in love, support each other's careers and work, and of course both become successful and famous (and what are the odds of that?)
Beautifully written, it's also an ode to Manhattan life in the 1970s, which was far more interesting and less dangerous than many would have it. Smith and Mapplethorpe seem to have run into and befriended every significant figure in the arts during the course of the book. Dylan tonight, Joplin last night, Warhol another night. What's not to like?
Starting with her own childhood and teen years, Smith contrasted her own family and upbringing before moving to New York City with Mapplethorpe's similar family background. Quickly shedding the constrained and pre-determined life she'd face if she stayed in the suburbs, Smith moved to New York City, stumbling into the arty bohemian culture that would prove to be her lifeblood and which would lead her to Mapplethorpe, her best friend and long time love. They sort of fall into a relationship as lovers and enthusiastic supporters of each others' varied artistic endeavors; sharing cheap apartments, studios and, for a time, the storied Chelsea Hotel; starving together when they can't afford food; nursing each other through illness; and encouraging each other to break into the music and art circles that could make a difference to their future successes. As Smith and Mapplethorpe try to find themselves and the artistic mediums in which they want to showcase their messages, they wend their way through the riotous world of the late 60's and early 70's in New York. From desperate young lovers to dearest platonic friends and eventually through Robert's terrible, early death from AIDS, Smith has written a tepid love-letter to a man forever in her heart.
Although her relationship with Mapplethorpe must have been very complex and multi-faceted, Smith has not managed to convey a real sense of depth to what should be the main focus of the book. She herself comes off as naive and boring while Mapplethorpe comes off as a social climbing, egomaniacal user. But her lack of insight into herself and Mapplethorpe is only one of the problems with the book. Set in a vibrant and unique time and place, Smith doesn't manage to evoke that time and place very well at all. She focuses on heavy descriptions of the apartments they lived in and the clothes they wore but manages to miss conveying the overarching sensibility of the time, presenting little actual substance about the people and artists inhabiting this world and even less about herself and Mapplethorpe. Great writing, as opposed to the self-conscious and forced attempt at poetic writing found here, would have been able to bring me into the scene despite my own safe, suburban life and yet this was so pedestrian that I never felt as if I was there.
Despite the great love Smith harboured for Mapplethorpe, there was a detachment that belied the depth of feeling she tells us over and over was the centerpiece of their relationship. The middle portion of the book was a list of the famous and not so famous people that she and Mapplethorpe encountered as they practiced their art and searched for a way into the inner circle of folks like Warhol. This name dropping was not only dull but ineffective, making the reader care not at all for the brief scenes invoked only to mention the names (many of which this reader didn't recognize nor have any interest in looking up). And really, there were very little scenes of any substance at all with more of the book feeling like blurry snapshots where any and all action happened just outside the frame of the picture. As one of the few sober people on the scene, Smith's memories, aside from the apartments, studios, and clothing are less vivid and interesting than one might hope causing the reader to wonder what experiences she is glossing over. The narration is pretentious and filled with studied offhand references to French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Genet but little to no information on her own career and eventual success or Mapplethorpe's either. Apparently the struggle was all. But it wasn't. Frankly for me, the struggle to read and finish it was all. Deeply disappointing, that this very uninspired, uninteresting memoir won the National Book Award and continues to garner highly laudatory responses is completely baffling to me.
Smith's memoir covers some early memories of her life in Chicago and New Jersey before leaving for NYC. Pale, skinny, and bookish, with a knack for reading old poetry and drawing, she moves to NYC without a place to live in the late 1960's, hoping for nothing more than to crash with some friends at Pratt University (whom she eventually finds moved away). She eventually meets the man who would change her life completely, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Much of the book is spent narrating the duo's travels around the city, first renting a place in Brooklyn, then going to Manhattan once their place is robbed. Though they're mostly broke, any pennies scrapped together goes toward their art, buying cheap crafts and salvaging whatever they happen to find. They clearly inspire each other and have a great deal of admiration for whatever they're attempting to express through their crafts. Along the way they meet the colorful cast of what are now known as NYC's most celebrated writers/artists, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Wagstaff, Warhol, Dylan, etc.
It's weird to think that just forty years ago, a front room loft space on the top floor of a building on 23rd st. in Manhattan could be had for nothing more than $100 and a promise to clean the place within a month. I'll admit that I was more interested in the descriptions of the city and its carefree attitude and I like Smith's willingness to be so open at a time when the city was still in a frenzied state. Just Kids is a great read, whether you appreciate photography, early rock/roll, or city life in NYC.
It's the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; from the first day they met to the end of Mapplethorpe's life.
She's an amazingly gifted writer. The whole book reads like an extended poem. Just beautiful, and very moving.
Here's just one example of her amazing writing:
"It is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys. Robert infused objects, whether for art or life, with his creative impulse, his sacred sexual power."
Not only was the writing beautiful but the story of Patti's and Robert Mapplethorpe's trials and tribulations in their quest to become bona fide artists was fascinating. There are so many great anecdotes about encounters with famous artists of that era (i.e. Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Todd Rundgren and many more). Also, their will to persist in the face of some serious obstacles was extraordinary. She does such a wonderful job portraying the artist's quest for finding herself and the ultimate outlet for her talent.
As a somewhat random aside, I wonder if artists do not pursue their craft as wholeheartedly as Patti portrays her and Robert's journey. Have we lost something in this modern age? I'm not trying to condemn everyone...there are some great musicians and artists out there right now; however, it seems that those who are the most significant in the public conscience are lacking depth. It just makes me wonder which is more true: is there a dearth of quality artists and musicians in this day and age...or are we spreading the talent pool too thin by amusing ourselves to death as entertained in Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World? Patti expressed similar musings in a far superior manner when describing the journey of her band. She said:
"We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity."
Interesting things to ponder, no? Anyways, after finishing this enchanting novel I was left with the impression that, while this book is many things, ultimately it is Patti's extended love letter to her best friend Robert. Honestly, this is one of the best memoirs I've ever read...I highly recommend Just Kids.
Patti's memoir of their lives together is an interesting and emotionally evocative story of two young kids without anything but a love for art and music, who cultivated creativity and success in the other. I really enjoyed reading about their lives and I was particularly drawn to Patti's descriptions of Robert, as she described him as a haunted but passionate soul, consumed with exploring and exposing the forbidden in society. An excellent and very well written account of love, art, and the NYC art scene in the 60's & 70's.
"There are many stories I could yet write about Robert, about us. But this is the story I have told. It is the one he wished me to tell and I have kept my promise. We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined."