We try it!

We Try It!: Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

When I bought Just Kids I was expecting something raw and deliberately dirty, titillating or even shocking, but nothing could have surprised me so much as Smith’s beautiful, lyrical writing voice, her style having clearly been influenced by the Romantic poets she references throughout the book. Just Kids is a chronicle of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversial photographer whose homoerotic work would come to represent the opposition to the Moral Majority. Most of all, Just Kids is a portrait of a young woman struggling to achieve her dreams of artistry in the face of societal disdain and poverty.

The bulk of Just Kids is divided into four parts, the first telling of Smith’s childhood and adolescence, the second her initial falling in with Mapplethorpe, the third their stay at the famed Hotel Chelsea, and the fourth that of their drifting apart. These delineations aren’t arbitrary; each ends and begins with palpable changes in Smith’s personal life and achievements inching her closer to her dream of being a poet.

Smith writes with a combination of candor and distance, as when she describes becoming pregnant at 19 and giving her daughter up for adoption. The subject of extramarital pregnancy in a relatively poor family in the “˜60s ought to be enough to bolster an entire novel, but Smith limits that particular experience to a few pages, stating that neighbors so shamed her family she had to move in with a friend, and nurses at the hospital where she gave birth mocked her “Beatnik” appearance, “calling me “˜Dracula’s daughter’ and threatening to cut my long, black hair.” She never stops to pity herself, and, shortly after her daughter’s birth and adoption, Smith leaves for New York.

I won’t spoil how exactly Smith and Mapplethorpe meet, but it’s quietly epic, like most of their adventures together. They recognize one another as kindred spirits, and after just one night together, Smith writes, “As it if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work.” The pair would live together for the next five years, first as lovers, and later in a somewhat evolved partnership.

My favorite part of the book chronicles Smith and Mapplethorpe’s earliest years together, when all they could afford was a Brooklyn apartment where “the walls were smeared with blood and psychedelic scribbling, the oven crammed with discarded syringes.” They fix the place up and spend the nights drawing and listening to records, the days taking turns visiting museums (because they can only afford one ticket, taking turns to see the exhibit and describe it to the other) and working odd jobs. Ultimately, they serve as one another’s protectors and muses, encouraging each other’s artistic inclinations and vowing “to create art together and [make] it, with or without the world.”

Reading Just Kids from the perspective of knowing both Smith and Mapplethorpe become famous is quite interesting, particularly when they begin to break into the remnants of Warhol’s Factory crowd, and meet  movers and shakers at the Chelsea Hotel. My biggest complaint is that, at about half way through the book, a tidal wave of new acquaintances and famous faces begins to flood the pages and it becomes almost impossible to keep everyone’s name straight. On the other hand, I was delighted to read about Smith shepherding a distraught Janis Joplin back to her hotel, having a quiet chat with Jimi Hendrix outside a party, or being dubbed a “crow” by Salvador Dali.

Perhaps most fascinating, though even-handedly and compassionately portrayed, is Mapplethorpe’s navigation of his sexuality, as he comes to identify as a homosexual. He still declares his love for Patti, who is supportive as he progresses from tentative exploration to “hustling” (male prostitution, done in part to provide much-needed rent) to actualized relationships with other men. Patti even develops a close friendship with Sam Wagstaff, the mentor who funds much of Robert’s career, in addition to becoming his life-long partner and friend. Despite the “free love” aesthetic of much of the 60s and early 70s, Patti’s acceptance of Robert, not to mention their willingness to participate in a non-traditional couplehood, was fairly radical and ahead of their time.

What’s really striking about all of Just Kids is the feeling that its protagonists are just on the cusp of notoriety and fame, just about to make it. I really enjoyed how open Patti was about her own fight to stay creative and productive, especially as often felt she didn’t fit in with the glamorous Warhol crowd Robert ran with, nor have the innate self-confidence that he did. Patti’s not afraid to share her failures, from the multiple times she’s fired nearly immediately from jobs to her forced attempts at acting. In the end, it’s both encouraging and inspiring that she was malleable enough to translate her love of poetry into rock music, and that she experience a large share of setbacks and hunger and discouragement on her way to the top.

I loved the book, plain and simple, and it’s likely one that I’ll return to in the future. If you’re interesting in rock and roll, punk, photography, GLBT history, Warhol, New York, poetry, or just how to be a struggling artist (emphasis on the struggling), Just Kids will likely speak to you too.

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