Saturday, 29 October 2011

Just Kids

Just Kids - Patti Smith

"I didn't mind the misery of a vocation but I dreaded not being called."
Patti Smith knew early on that she wanted to be an artist. This is the story of how she discovered her vocation and her fellow traveller on that early journey, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met soon after arriving in New York.  "I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me."
The book uses Smith's diaries and has a very immediate feel. You can sense her finding her feet in the city, and confidence in her various artistic enterprises: painter, poet, muse...

Her childhood is beautifully drawn in poetic images: Smith a tomboy general wearing the orange or green of her Irish grandfather's world; gradually growing like the swan of the first paragraph, shedding her grey signet feathers as she dances to rock'n'roll and looks to the horizon beyond the piecework factories and onto the train to New York City, the world of early b-side Piss Factory.

One of her early memories of New York is the death of John Coltrane, and the whole book is interwoven with meetings with other artists who she treats almost as druids, powerful figures doing holy work, but often consumed in the process. Here she is on Coltrane: "It was as if a saint had died, one who had offered u healing music yet was not permitted to heal himself." Or fauning (sic) over beat poet Greg Corso: "He would always spell trouble and might even wreak havoc, yet he gave us a body of work as pure as a newborn fawn."

Smith and Mapplethorpe move from itinerants to tenants:"I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop, trying not to wear out my own unwelcome." - "We combined our belongings. My few records were filed in an orange crate with his. My winter coat hung next to his sheepskin vest." Gradually they begin to shape their own spaces: "My room reflected the bright mess of my interior world, part boxcar and part fairyland."
Harry Smith
As they achieve stability they start to make names for themselves and become established faces around town, mixing with the boho glitterati: "I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her "Me and Bobby McGee", Janis joining in on the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments." Many of these moments occur in the fabled Chelsea Hotel, with mucic archivist extrodinaire Harry Smith emerging as one of the key figures in Smith's life at this time. His belief in magic chimes with her own belief in the power of art.

Whatever about missing  "moments",  Patti and Robert successfully focussed on creating their own moments and their growing confidence and the process of creation is palpable from these pages. Their influence on each other , whether as lovers, friends and co-muses; their use of the opportunities and input they receive: "As Robert concentrated on technical aspects, I focussed on Georgia O'Keefe as she related to Stieglitz, without artiface. Robert was concerned with how to take the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph."

Robert & Patti
Of course, as well as being a lovesong to the "kids" of the title this is also an elegy to Smith's first love and the death of Robert Mapplethorpe from AIDS at a young age is still clearly painful. This is a vivid and touching book which gives Smith's fans a chance to see behind the mythos and gives everyone a chance to see why she was rated so highly as  a poet even before her rock'n'roll apotheosis. The lady can write.

"Lenny would put on our favourite singles, and we'd dance to the Dovells' "Bristol Stomp" or do the 81 to Maureen Gray singing "Today's the Day.""


  1. Wonderful review - can't wait to read it. Love the photos you've found to include, especially the one of her with Robert Mapplethorpe. They look so young and intense.

    1. Thanks - it's not hard to find good pictures for this. Mapplethorpe shot quite a few.