Books: Just Kids by Patti Smith

This is a book that has been curated rather than written. Lovingly and beautifully pieced together from experiences and memories.

It tells largely of the period after a hungry, penniless Smith arrives in New York in 1967 and a chance street encounter and a shared egg cream with a young Robert Mapplethorpe leads to them becoming lovers. It's easy to forget the Grand Dame of the New York music scene was once a shy teenager in a torn dress from the five and dime.

It's clear that Smith has had this treasured book in her since Mapplethorpe died at the age of 42 in 1989 from AIDS complications. The description of a single piece of Persian jewellery, of Jim Morrison's freshly dug grave in the Parisian rain and of Televisions first gig at CBGB's are written in wonderful matured poetic prose. The choice of illustrations and photographs, telling and appropriate.

By the time of Mapplethorpes death the couple had largely drifted apart. Smith had swapped a pen for a guitar and Mapplethorpe a pencil for a polaroid camera. And while Smith was raising a family her ex lover was facing obscenity charges for his portraits of pissing, pimps and rent boys. But both had achieved the fame they dreamt of over long winter nights in the Chelsea Hotel.

Smith and Mapplethorpe (Norman Seeff, 1970)

Smith and Mapplethorpe (Norman Seeff, 1970)

Smith's style throughout is charmingly contradictory. She draws heavily on realism to describe the grave of the celebrated symbolist Arthur Rimbaud with whom she has had a lifelong obsession. But as her and Mapplethorpe struggle in near poverty through the death rattle of a decade and the mortal deaths of Jones and Joplin, of Coltrane and Hendrix and the Kent State students her book documents the beginning of a new era.

While the London punks with their often ill informed nihilism were hating Pink Floyd and tearing up the ICA, Smith, Hell and Verlaine were kneeling at the altar of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Warhol. They greedily accepted and devoured the best of the past. They were gently guided by influencers such as Wagstaff and Guggenheim who determined value and relevance. Unlike McLaren, Wilson and Rhodes they had seen it all before and were older and vastly more knowledgable than their own creative fledglings.

Reading this book made me question my previously held truths that the New York scene of the early 70's critically begat, and was directly responsible for the UK punk movement. US punks were guided and influenced more by the past. While The Damned and The Pistols were celebrating isolationism and anarchy, Talking Heads (appropriately named The Artistics in their early days) and Blondie were crafting pure pop from Suzi Quatro bass lines and Phil Spector production values. Ok, there was The New York Dolls but you see what I'm getting at.

Just Kids concentrates on a period of unfettered vision and creativity. A time of being beyond cool and beyond boundaries. They may have been 'just kids' but the dam bursts open some two thirds through the book when Mapplethorpe proudly shows Smith a collage of nude images he has spent all night gluing to a canvas. 'It's genius isn't it?', 'Yes' she replies.

I'm in New York next month and this book has added the Chelsea Hotel, egg creams and a walk through the Bowery to my list.

Rating: 8/10