By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 30, 2010
At 14, Patti Smith was a “skinny loser,” a frequent occupant of the dunce chair. She was also, God bless her, a reader, “smitten by the book.” Her family was working class --- her mother was a waitress, her father a factory worker --- so they moved often, ending up in Camden, New Jersey.
For her 16th birthday, her mother gave her “The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera.” That summer, as she worked in a factory, inspecting handlebars for tricycles, she dreamed that she was Frida Kahlo, “both muse and maker.”
Robert Mapplethorpe grew up on Long Island. He was mischievous and handsome, “tinged with a fascination for beauty.” His family was neat, orderly, Catholic. They weren’t talkers, they weren’t readers. They were “safe.”
At 20, Patti got pregnant, left school, gave up her child. She found solace in Rimbaud, in the idea of a burning passion for art. That meant New York City. She went to buy a bus ticket, discovered the fare had gone up. Then, in a phone booth, she found a handbag. There was money inside. She took it, blessing her unknown benefactor.
In New York, she slept in the park, cadged day-old bread. That was just inconvenience. What was real: “It was the summer Coltrane died.” And it was the summer she met her great love and dark twin. They moved in together and dedicated themselves to art.
Robert Mapplethorpe got AIDS and died in 1989. Long before. Patti Smith had become the Poet Laureate of New York punk music. And now, with her memoir, “Just Kids,” she is the winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Who doesn’t love to read about the struggling years of people who become great successes? This is among the best of that breed --- the story of a woman with a pure heart who willed herself to be an artist and a man who loved art with the same intensity but with a cool eye for the ways it could launch him into money, fame, Society. To her credit, Smith is no blinkered keeper of the flame. She acknowledges Mapplethorpe’s worldly ambitions: “We were both praying for Robert’s soul, he to sell it and I to save it.”
Still, the title is exactly right. “One cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together.” When they took a break, she boiled water and made Nescafé. After a good session, they splurged on Mallomars, Robert’s favorite treat. They had their differences --- Robert wanted to be Warhol, Patti “hated the soup and felt little for the can” --- but it didn’t matter. All that was important was mutual support, their unending belief in the other’s talent. Progress was measured in the work. And in baby steps: “We now had enough money for two sandwiches.”
Eventually, they make it to the Hotel Chelsea, haven for the hip and artistic. They hang out at Max’s Kansas City. And now we start to recognize the names. In the Automat, Allen Ginsberg tries to pick Patti up --- he thought she was “a very pretty boy.” She meets a friend of Dylan’s, who brings her to meet Janis Joplin. She starts an affair with Sam Shepherd without knowing who he is.
And, finally, Robert comes to terms with his sexuality. He and Patti stop living together even as they affirm undying love. He trades drawing for photography and begins to take the gorgeous pictures of nude men and flowers that led to his first success. And then, as Smith delicately puts it, he “took areas of dark human consent and turned them into art.”
The rest of the story is one you may already know. She picked up a guitar, set her poems to music, started a band. As ever, she was a crusader for art:
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 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. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.
Dylan came to see her. Springsteen gave her “Because the Night,” which became a hit. Then she married Fred Sonic Smith --- “a king among men and men knew him” --- and moved to Detroit to start a family.
“Robert was diagnosed with AIDS at the same time I found I was carrying my second child.” That is some sentence. But then, so many are --- my copy of “Just Kids” has more pencil marks in the margins than any book I’ve read this year. It’s not just her writing, though, that grabs me. It’s her spirit.
“We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world.” And then one was left to tell the story. It’s not the whole story, and some of it strikes me as made-up as Dylan’s memoir, but no matter --- I completely believe their commitment to their work. And I pray that when my daughter is, say, fourteen, she’ll pick this book up and let it work its magic.
Bonus #1: A reading from the book. At 5:30, she reads the last letter she wrote to Mapplethorpe --- he died before she could send it. News reports say there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience when she finished. Better have Kleenex ready.
Bonus #2: She reads from the book, then leads her audience in a group sing of "Because the Night."