by Patti Smith
Ecco, January 19, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0066211312 $27.00
Reviewed by Kathryn K. Stevenson
History Burns Too
In the early days of their life together, she cries so much he calls her Soakie, but not yet. First she has to make her way out of a strapped New Jersey town on a one-way ticket to New York.
Amidst the Great Blizzard of 1946, a taxi shuttles through Chicago's North Side and Patti Smith arrives "a long, skinny thing with bronchial pneumonia," saved by her father holding her over the steam of a hot bath.
She grows up taken with words—first the ones she recites in her prayers at night, Mom smoking a cigarette at her bedside, then the ones she reads in books—a fascination heightened by the feverish days she spends laid up with childhood illnesses like the measles and chicken pox. Daydreaming lands her in the corner at school.
Following an eviction, the family moves to a rural town in southern New Jersey, and Patti mourns their old home and a time when her mother didn't demand she put a shirt on. Repulsed by 1950s femininity, she imagines herself the independent Jo from Little Women and begins crafting stories. A family excursion to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia leaves her breathless about the possibility of being "called" to art.
"A skinny loser" by 14, Smith seeks refuge from high school ridicule in rock 'n' roll and spends her time drawing, dancing, and writing poems. For her 16th birthday, her mother gives her The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. When she takes a job at a nonunion factory inspecting tricycle handlebars, she escapes by imagining herself "as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker."
That year, at a Philadelphia bookstall, enthralled by the look on a young man's face, she pockets a copy of Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations. Later, her coworkers at the factory catch her reading a book written in French and corner her, calling her a communist and demanding she rebuke him. She refuses.
By 1966, Patti Smith is putting herself through Glassboro State Teachers College when she "[falls] into trouble" with a boy.
For a young woman who never imagined herself a girl, who held no ill will toward her parents, who fell in love with far-away poets rather than real-life Jersey boys, the pregnancy is an unexpected, awkward thing. Dismissed from college, she moves in with some friends closer to the sea than the city and gravitates to a nearby coffee shop—tall, isolated, suddenly exposed. In April of 1967, under a full moon and amid a choir of boys singing a cappella songs in the street below her hospital window, she gives birth, handing the child over to a family wanting one.
Weeks later, she takes a Memorial Day trip to Philadelphia's Joan of Arc statue, promising to make something of herself.
In Brooklyn, crouched over two drawings he titled Destruction of the universe. May 30 '67, Robert Mapplethorpe was dropping acid.
At some point in the middle of reading Just Kids, it occurs to me to wonder if I'm the one who came from Patti Smith. I flip a few pages back and find it: 1967. The math isn't even close. Still, like the child she gave up, I grew up without Patti Smith, and, pages into her memoir, I feel a range of emotions that must echo those of an adopted New Jersey Taurus: I didn't get to board the bus to New York, fall in love with Robert Mapplethorpe, and emerge a rock-n-roll priestess or the daughter of one either.
But I have to shake that off right away because most of us didn't. Only a handful did. Still, inexplicably, it hurts not to have been that bold.
And, anyway, her life feels familiar, too. To a girl who never thought of herself as one, who's been exposed as bad, who falls hardest for out-of-reach poets and takes refuge in symbols of irreverence like rock 'n' roll and Rimbaud, Patti Smith's story, about finding her own, feels like coming home.
For the ones still out of place, how is going to matter.
Distilled, it looks like this: Picasso, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, and Illuminations.
As plot points, the works mark the story's first lesson, or a knot of them. Coming to art is a derailment: Patti's from New Jersey factories, a teacher's college, and single-motherhood; Robert's from an ROTC uniform and altar boy robes. And the derailing is a kind of collision based in an early, accidental apprenticeship. You have to veer off course, but you have to collide with something, too.
It's also a compulsion to reach. Living vicariously can last as long as it takes to read a book, but at some point you have to put the book down and live for yourself.
Laid off from a Philadelphia textbook factory job and on the waiting list at the Columbia Records pressing plant in Pitman and the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, twenty-year-old Patti Smith stood at the bus terminal faced with her first setback: bus fair had doubled. She couldn't swing it.
Dressed in a black turtleneck and gray raincoat and carrying a small plaid suitcase full of drawing pencils, a notebook, and her stolen copy of Illuminations, she stepped into a phone booth to think. There, atop a phonebook, she found an abandoned white patent purse with thirty-two dollars in it, nearly a week's pay at her factory job. Grateful, she took the cash, bought her ticket, and boarded the bus. It was July 3, 1967—"a Monday," Smith recalls, adding, "It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me."
And that's the next lesson: you have to have the guts to think you can make it, but you have to get lucky, too, or prescient enough to know where and when to be.
What follows is part history, part coming of age, part love story.
She sleeps in Central Park and leaves applications at the shops along Fifth Avenue, eating lettuce and bread from the brown bags cooks slip to a young transient she befriends. Days later, her friend gone, John Coltrane dies. She walks down Second Avenue under the pink lights of the setting sun, thinking of the eulogy Frank O'Hara would have written had he still been alive.
If she's worried about the city crushing her, it doesn't show. The skyscrapers are "beautiful," not "mere corporate shells," but "monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America."
It was still 1960s New York.
Hungry, jobless, in love with poetry, Patti isn't running from a failed childhood or abusive parents. She's feeling her way into a world not yet willing to swallow its young.
Soon, she's hired at the uptown branch of Brentano's bookstore, where she rings up sales of Berber bracelets and jewel-encrusted Buddhas, but the job is barely enough to feed her. For a week, she sleeps in the store bathroom at night and cries when she realizes her first paycheck will be delayed another week.
One day, she's behind the counter when a boy appears with a credit slip from the downtown Brentano's. He is beyond beautiful, the kind of boy behind longing, a face that, on a woman, would make all the literary heroines of an era the story of a single, tormented artist, told and retold from the perspectives of men who'd loved her.
When he chooses a Persian necklace that Patti sometimes takes out of its case to stare at and trace the pattern of, she tells him, "Don't give it to any other girl but me."
The next time she sees him, she is on a date with a dubious older suitor, a writer more like "an actor playing a writer" who buys her dinner and asks her up to his place for a drink. Hungry, she agrees to have dinner with him, but she doesn't understand why he wants to pay for her meal. This is the man women are warned about, she thinks. She looks around, wanting out. Then, she spots a young man approaching and "It was as if a small portal of future opened and out stepped the boy from Brooklyn who had chosen the Persian necklace."
She runs over to him.
"Do you remember me?"
"Of course I do."
"Will you pretend to be my boyfriend?" she asks him.
It is the beginning of their underground love affair. Soon, they are living together, posing as husband and wife on a visit to his strict Catholic parents, foraging for work, food, and art supplies, leaning on one another over the course of their ascent into one of the most coveted art scenes in American history—an era whose space/time continuum is achingly small compared to the largesse of its characters and their collective impact on the American psyche.
The bond is a confused and contradictory mix, simultaneously magnetic and unlikely. Patti is sober, Robert isn't. His demons drive him to work maniacally without questioning his place in the world or the role of the artist. Hers drive her to tears sometimes, but she stops to ruminate about the point of making art. He cares about appearances. Patti doesn't have the patience or reverence to care. Robert's fears seem to manifest as superficial concerns for social niceties like the dress and manner in which he presents himself when he leaves his work to step outside. Patti's appear to coalesce around a deeper concern for that which is customary, manifesting as anxiety about how far Robert will go with his hustling, sexuality, and art. From the start, she imagines him turning to dust before her. She's not wrong.
In the meantime, he tells her, "There will always be you and me."
Smith manages an autobiographical portrait of two artists' coming of age story graciously, modestly—somehow making Robert Mapplethorpe the star, despite her clear resolve to background Robert and approach his story gently, offering a picture of the young artist while leaving him just out of reach.
It's Robert you fall in love with.
Because she tells him stories of her childhood, Smith's memory of even her earliest rebellions is linked to her memories of Robert. When she recalls swiping a pin from a childhood playmate, she remembers them laughing about Patti being a bad girl trying to be good and Robert being a good boy trying to be bad.
From Smith's account, readers might glean that these two really are "just kids," as an older man responds when his wife asks her husband to take their picture. The couple are passersby, but Patti Smith's account of herself suggests she is pedestrian in a world of gargantuan, fresh-faced boy talents the likes of Michelangelo, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan—and Robert Mapplethorpe.
There's a moment or two when Patti comes first and you suddenly see deep inside her—like the time when she's at a Doors' concert and feels ashamed of the way she watches Jim Morrison, confident she could do that. She's ashamed of her thinking, but you love her for it. The moment comes years before she'll take the stage, but it's a minute the woman who is capable of being Patti Smith reveals herself. In the book's more cryptic moments, a similar exposure is at work, her reticence hinting at emotions too painful to clarify, like her remorse at not being better equipped to accept Robert's love for men. These are the moments you really love her—when you sense her feeling inadequate and want to protect her from the pain that must be, get her back up on the stage.
For the most part, though, you see Robert—or at least Patti orbiting around him. He's full and voracious, beautiful and vulnerable, possessed and dispossessed, sometimes cool and sometimes stricken, but always calling her back.
"Patty," he writes in one of his letters to her. "Wanted to cry so bad, but my tears are inside. A blindfold keeps them there. I can't see today. Patti—I don't know anything."
You love him so much you can't read the last few pages, or even glance at them, without crying. By the end of it, you wonder why she wants you to fall in love with Robert, her Robert.
There's her humility, for one. Smith lacks the self-obsessed narcissism of the artists she loves, an absence that explains the quality of her writing, the triumph of her sobriety, her early embrace of androgyny—which she wonderfully once thought meant ugly and beautiful—her lack of interest in styling herself as a fashion icon, and, ultimately, her ability to prevail in New York's revolving-door art world populated by beautiful losers of the sort Ginsberg commemorates in Howl, when he speaks of the best minds of his generation "destroyed by madness." Somehow, amidst the madness, Smith is sound. Capable of giving. Capable of writing memoir as a gift, as the fulfillment of a promise she made to Robert to tell their story.
Then there's Robert. It's not Patti asking the reader to love him. Patti just channels him. It's Robert who wants to be fallen for, as though we are gripped by desire beyond even the grave.
Does desire not die with us? Is it part of the same field for which there is an equal and opposite reaction for every action?
At the end of his life, dying of AIDS, Mapplethorpe asks her if it was the art that destroyed them.
"I don't know," she answers, thinking that if it was, being destroyed by art is not such a bad thing.
In its context, the question seems a little out of touch. Robert is dying, but Patti has just given birth. It's a testament to Robert's beautiful narcissism that he mistakes his plight for theirs—just as the photos he takes of Patti remind their friends of Robert.
In 1967, the year Patti Smith moved to New York, Joan Didion wrote in Goodbye to All That, "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends." Like Patti Smith, Joan Didion was twenty when she first arrived in New York in the summertime. Years later, she tries to pinpoint the moment when New York ended for her, but can't "lay [her] finger upon" it, can't "cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was." For Patti, whose brother was about to ship off to Vietnam, watching her father plant a weeping willow in his backyard was the kind of moment that marked an end.
There are a string of them in her retelling of the times, but no collapse as big as the one those living with the era's contradictions anticipated. The nation's changes came in swift, successive blows too shocking to shake anyone up. Patti was a "gangly" twenty-two-year-old book clerk bumping into Jimmy Hendrix and Grace Slick at the bar of the Chelsea Hotel when Charles Manson killed Sharon Tate. The Chelsea was changing, too. Soon after she and Robert left their room there they lost Jimmy Hendrix, followed by Janis Joplin and Edie Sedgwick and those who had not managed to make a name for themselves before they were gone.
Just Kids is an important missing link, documenting the first days of tomorrow's sound and image makers and the last days of magic before the turbulent flight into post-innocence when the center did not hold, Martin Luther King was gunned down at the Lorraine hotel in Memphis, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, and Robert F. Kennedy was killed—an epoch filtered through the lens of an American artist living in one of the era's most famed shelters of voluptuous wayward youth, the Chelsea Hotel, "a doll's house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe."
As much as it recalls a specific history, the book transcends the era, too, telling the timeless story of a person given over to art, of art's outside, its outlaw mentors and muses, and the compulsive pursuit of kin. This story is not unlike history. It's a better history, one that puts all good things in one place for a minute, the artist at its center a kind of glorious time machine with the power to raise the dead so she won't have to live without them. The artist's passion—her adulation, affection, longing—brings the dead back to life.
In her modesty, though, Patti Smith doesn't see it that way. She ends the book with a question: "Why can't I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit burns most deeply."
She has, though. Robert's gone, but she can stir the rest of us.
We have to live our own lives, of course, but we need a reference point to know how. No one's going to regret living vicariously long enough to read Just Kids.
Kathryn K. Stevenson teaches essay construction in Southern California colleges and plays songs she writes on electric guitar. Her band is Kate's Voice can be found here.