I had no idea, really. Beyond the few songs I'd heard on the radio, I knew little about Patti Smith's work, and nothing about her life. She was one of many artists I admire from a distance because of the esteem in which others hold her.
Just Kids isn't a substitute for listening to her songs or reading her poetry, but it is an entertaining and moving account of her life, centering on her remarkable relationship with her muse and protector, the artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe and Smith meet as starving artists in 1967 in New York City. "Artist" here makes them sound accomplished, but really, at 21, they barely had more than the urge to create and the drive to live on the edge of starvation in order to do so. Patti, well-read and voracious in her interests, carries romantic notions of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, but has trouble completing her own poetry. Less immersed in the work of others, Robert creates odd assemblages but can't realize the large-scale installations in his head. Mostly, they loved and inspire each other while they wait for lightning to strike.
Most of their early life together is squalid, and the kindness of strangers is a persistent theme. Due to luck and their personal charm, they make friends and better themselves in a slow spiral up from poverty. Patti works in bookstores and seems to support both of them. They move into the Chelsea Hotel and hang out at Max's Kansas City, mingling (and more) with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Harry Smith and Sam Shepard to the social and artistic mavericks of Andy Warhol's Factory. Patti describes moments with friends like Todd Rundgren and William Burroughs in ways that amuse and impress without seeming boastful.
Patti and Robert each move on to other lovers and patrons without ever letting each other go fully, and her description of their bond makes it timeless and mystical. Patti writes well, remembering details of haircuts, clothes, meals, and conversations that helped to immerse me in the heady and charged New York art world of the late '60s and early '70s. (As a former used-book fiend, I especially loved her memories of finding valuable editions for cheap that she would then flip into a much-needed meal or a rent payment.)
Patti's description of her forays into acting and poetry reading make her eventual transformation into a proto-punk rocker completely inevitable, and it's hard not to see Robert's artistic growth as a kind of simultaneous ascent into purity and descent into depravity. In the end, though, this is a story about two people who have a connection like few others have ever shared, though they've long before parted as lovers. It's a beautiful thing.