Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Just Kids by Patti Smith

For some reason I didn't get round to reading Patti Smith's compelling memoir "Just Kids" when it came out, but sometimes you realise you're reading a book just at the right time, and that's what it felt like picking it up last week. For "Just Kids" is an autobiography of an artist's life - it skips over childhood and family, and stops just before Smith became famous with "Horses." Yet, it's not just an autobiography, but also a biography, of her close friend, lover and artistic other half Robert Mapplethorpe, the radically inventive photographer who's iconic picture of Patti adorns the cover of "Horses."

But all of that is to come. For Smith moves to New York, nearly penniless, but rich in dreams, in the late sixties, having already given up her unexpected baby for adoption - a pregnancy that, still a scandal in those days, put paid to her teaching career. Brought up in a poor, but loving home, her entrance into New York life was at a time when the city was at one of its perennial high points. With Woodstock about to happen up state, and with protests against the Vietnam war dominating the news, it was a city both exciting and impenetrable, and Smith's arrival there was a tough one - until one day she bumped into Mapplethorpe, from a similar background to her, albeit a much stricter Catholic one, and as determined as she was to live an artistic life. Smith's exemplars were poets - Blake, Rimbaud, Verlaine. Whilst Mapplethorpe was more obsessed with the contemporary - particularly Andy Warhol and his real-life artistic Camelot of the Factory. They were lovers, before he realised his own sexuality. Perhaps Smith's own unusual androgyny helped here (Ginsberg would later try and pick her up, thinking her at first to be a very pretty boy.) Yet in Smith's semi-mythic telling, their sexual liaison was only a small part of their love for each other - a love that would continue through their mutual successes, right up to Mapplethorpe's AIDS-related death.

It's a fascinating portrait of a self-willed artistic life. Moving from sleeping on the street and on friends' floors, until they can afford a tiny room, this is a story that only the two of them were privy too. He is an artist making Joseph Cornell-like installations whilst she is both artist and poet. Her poetry heroes are mostly the dead - most of all Rimbaud - though she finds herself surprised to discover Jim Morrison who is channelling the same ghosts. Her musical hero is Dylan, who makes the words important. After a trip to Paris with her sister (her family are clearly supportive of her, but she hardly lets mention of them intrude on the myth-making) she returns to find Mapplethorpe ill and in a bad state. On an impulse she drags him to the legendary Chelsea Hotel where they are given the smallest room. It is of no matter, however, as here they are suddenly amongst their peers, or those they want to make their peers.

Despite little or no money, this is recounted as a golden time. Surrounded by artistic heroes both Patti and Robert have the time to explore their own art. He is yet to be a photographer, she is yet to be a singer, but in this exquisite telling of that time, you see how the different aspects of both their arts are allowed to chrysalise and grow. After Mapplethorpe finds a boyfriend, they still remain incredibly close, symbiotic in their love and need for each other, even as his darker side draws him to the S&M scenes which will eventually percolate his iconic photography. This is no rags to riches story - they both take longer to make it than either of them thinks - but they are also single minded in their pursuit of art. Her occasional jobs and his hustling are both means to an end. In the febrile environment of early 1970s New York they feel that it is their time, their age - they seem a different timbre from the sixties hippies, harder in some ways, but also more independent. Patti rarely does drugs, whilst Robert will try anything. Their contrasts are part of their symbiosis. Fascinatingly neither of them yet realises what they will become. Rarely have two young people so willed themselves to be artists. He is drawn to the gay demi monde of Warhol's Factory, whilst she finds herself offered opportunities as an actor particularly after she turns her haircut into a Keith Richard's styled mop. Cast as a lesbian in her final play, her director despairs that she isn't really the part that she looks. Smith is indeed something new, as is Mapplethorpe.

Around the Chelsea Hotel, and Max's Kansas City they both get more and more drawn into the world they have looked at from outside. Smith meets Hendrix, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin (for whom she writes a poem), but it is the great poet Gregory Corso who leaves the biggest impression on her. Meanwhile Mapplethorpe becomes closer to the art scene, both in awe of Warhol and jealous of him. As they stop being lovers, they remain friends and confidantes - though Smith worries that the duality of Robert's nature - Catholic boy flirting with the devil - is taking him into places she doesn't understand or want to go. It's fascinating, given her most famous line is "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." No longer his lover, she meets other men - Jim Carroll, also a hustler, and who she appears to be in love with, Sam Shepherd, who writes a play with her then returns to his wife, and Allen Lanier, singer with Blue Oyster Cult, who she meets through Sandy Pearlman - he's their manager, and him and Smith are both writing rock reviews for similar publications. When she finally does a performance its supporting Corso at St. Mark's poetry project and she shocks the place by being accompanied by Lenny Kaye's guitar. It's a sensation - that leads to her first poetry collection - but it's also planned to be. Patti and Robert have been observing fame for so long that they understand its mechanics and when the right moment comes are ready to pounce on it. In a rare moment of self-criticism Smith admonishes herself for not thanking Corso and Robert who helped her put the night on.

Smith is a wonderful guide through these times, detailed, mesmeric, and she writes like an angel. But its a compelling story. Only now and then do you reflect how much of a story it is - the details of the life blur what might have actually happened - this is Smith's telling of it, a mythic tale to join the mythic tales of her heroes. It is this sense of an artistic destiny, and the importance of creating a framework in which her and Robert have willed themselves into being artists, which is so great about the book. You put the book down wanting to time travel to NYC in 1970. Like many good writers Smith is a clever observer of the world she was walking through - of course, more than many others, she became a participant in something bigger - her debut album in 1975 was proclaimed as a masterpiece, but it wouldn't be until "Because the Night" three years later that she'd have a hit. Lanier - her longest relationship after Robert - and Fred Sonic Smith, her later true love and husband, are hardly mentioned as if the importance is to the primal relationship with Robert. It's therefore a partial memoir, I guess, but none the worse for that. At the end she says that only her and Robert knew this part of the story and with him gone it's her job to tell it.

I'm reminded of other artists, writers and musicians I've known, particularly female ones, who've worked so hard to construct a viable artistic world in which they can thrive, even before success has come. It's as if the first work of the artist is to draw the world that they want to exist - for Smith in 1970 it didn't exist, there were no poet-rock stars, certainly no female ones. She had to create that role, that world. For Mapplethorpe it was the same. His work, once shocking America with its bullwhips and its S&M, is now seen as utterly iconic, a mastering of a unique and highly influential photographic style. I first saw Smith play live in the 1990s, where she hardly touched on her 1970s albums, concentrating on the records that had come out from "Dream of Life" onwards. Similarly I saw a Mapplethorpe show in London, where alongside the pictures of Patti Smith, and the S&M, there were some of his glorious still lifes of flowers. 

"Just Kids" is a brilliant dual biography of two equally important artists, who, not finding a template that would fit their own vision of the world, made something new. This memoir is the story of how they got there.

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