Patti Smith's Just Kids reviewed by Bonny Finberg

JUST KIDS –Patti Smith

Harper Collins, New York, 2010

279 pps.

Reviewed by Bonny Finberg

     Patti Smith has kept her promise to Robert Mapplethorpe to tell their story. By doing so through the lens of a generation of artists in New York at that time, she’s written our story as well. Her book could be subtitiled: “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation,” the Pete Townsend song she covered as if she’d written it herself.

     The book opens when, as a very young girl, Smith sees her first swan gliding then taking flight from the Prairie River in Humboldt Park. The sight of it “generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan…its whiteness the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.” This prescient moment, almost allegorical, is later played out in her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe whose place in her life was in some sense that of a fairy godfather, transforming her from insecure, self-effacing duckling to magnificent swan with wings from whose powerful beating rhythm comes an artistry of overwhelming beauty. Ironically, and typical for the times, Smith makes the conscious pledge to herself to support her artist/lover by giving him the freedom of not having to hold a job while she does. She works at various jobs so he can develop his art and afford studio space, while in the evenings, accompanying him on their routine visits to Max’s Kansas City. Their first, decidedly uneventful foray into Max’s was in 1969. Andy Warhol was no longer a regular after being shot by Valerie Solanas, though his second string, so to speak remained. Hanging out in the right places in order to meet the right people, though extremely important to Mapplethorpe is only something Smith does for his sake. She describes her reticence and painful social awkwardness. They start out in the front room near the bar spending their time drinking Cokes and trying to figure out how to work their way into the back room where the art world stars drink and commiserate, engaged in repartee that resembles a Looking Glass version of the Algonquin.

     Despite her self-consciousness in the presence of the royalty holding court in the back room, she rises to the occasion, spurred on by Mapplethorpe’s relentless pursuit of entering their inner circle. After a self-executed haircut, she describes the attention and approval that finally delivers her into the sanctuary of their Mad Tea Party.

     Patti Smith’s early religious training redefined events in clearly revelatory ways. She saw art as her “calling.” Her first confrontation with art was on a family trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Like much of Smith’s encounters, this was an epiphany. After a short stint in a factory in South Jersey, where she lived at the time, she left for the bus stop to take the bus to New York. Her mother had given her a white waitress outfit, complete with shoes, to ensure her survival. (They ended up in the bathroom of the first and last restaurant she would ever work in.) The going was rough and she slept in the park and in doorways before finally finding a place in Brooklyn to share. Her first meeting with Mapplethorpe happened while working behind a jewelry counter. It’s the kind of meeting that romantic movies are made of and begins a deep and long relationship that spans over twenty years.

     Among other things, these two were drawn together by their commitment to art as primary over all other pursuits. They shared musical tastes, sometimes playing certain records over and over again, and supported each other’s vision. The happy balance between their differences was maintained by the admiration and recognition of the other’s perspective and method. Smith recalls the snowy Christmas night when, walking in Time Square, they came upon the billboard “WAR IS OVER If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” She remarks that Mapplethorpe was impressed by the idea of artists taking over 42nd Street. She was struck by the humanity of the statement. “For me it was the message. For Robert the medium.” This was 1969. The end of the Sixties when Smith and Robert both turned 23. With the uncanny certainty and foresight he often shows in this story, Mapplethorpe declares at the beginning of the Seventies: “This is our decade.”

     Smith and Mapplethorpe’s days at the Hotel Chelsea provide one of the most compelling and evocative aspects of this book. Their time spent with Harry Smith, encounters with William Burroughs, Viva, Candy Darling and scores of others are funny and insightful. Even when Smith was not on intimate terms with some of these well known artists, her observations from her perch on a couch in the lobby opens a window into a time when the New York art world was an accessible, diverse universe for anyone with eyes and ears. She is privy to Shirley Clarke, Diane Arbus and Jonas Meekas, as they each pass through the lobby. Viva enters like an unapproachable diva in order to intimidate Stanley Bard, then owner of the Chelsea, so as to distract him from the fact of her outstanding rent.

     An interesting revelation about Smith here is that she was not so much the wild child that her stage persona suggested. She drank little, if at all, and never smoked dope. In fact, her descriptions of Mapplethorpe and Harry Smith readying to go out after smoking a joint is pretty funny. They try on various outfits and look for keys while she, having thrown some simple but hip outfit together, sits waiting impatiently. It isn’t until much later that after having smoked herself that she thinks back and understands their distraction.

     Smith’s development as a poet/performer informs some of the most fascinating sections. Her meeting with Lenny Kaye and their first performance at St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project is a Punk version of “A Star is Born” without the tragedy. There is little evidence here of struggling to become famous. It seemed that all who knew her were pushing her to go public. Once she did, she inspired adulation from the outset, and never stopped. She continues to give radioactive performances all over the globe.

     The larger part of this book covers a time of cheap all-night diners and five and dime stores full of cheap housewares, toys and kitsch that could be recycled into art objects. I’d forgotten some of these places until I read them in these pages: Benedict’s, Child’s, Lamston’s. It was a time when we made our own greeting cards and gifts by hand and paid rent that equaled about one week’s salary. It was New York at a time when you might have to struggle to survive and do your art, whereas now it seems more necessary to sacrifice your art in order to survive. It was a place where misfits from everywhere else could co-exist, if cynically, with those who came to make their fortune. You met people in the street or the park and were friends for life. You could work for two weeks as a waitress at Max’s (even if only in the front room where people got their own drinks and stiffed the waitress as I sadly learned) and make enough money for a cheap (illegal) charter flight to Europe. Pot was $15 an ounce.

     It all sounds so idyllic even in the writing of it here. Of course, being in your twenties and thirties makes any decade “the” decade. But this was before the AIDS epidemic, Rudy Giuliani, overdevelopment and, of course, 9/ll. So many were lost — people and places. But thanks to Patti Smith’s detailed records from journals and notebooks, photographs and drawings, we have them here for all time.

Steve CannonTribes