Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Linda Wolfe on Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

By Linda Wolfe

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Linda Wolfe discusses autobiography finalist Patti Smith's Just Kids (Ecco).

In Just Kids, poet and performer Patti Smith, who would one day be dubbed “the high priestess of punk rock,” recreates the charmed life she once shared with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who would one day be both lauded and reviled for his shocking homoerotic and sado-masochistic photographs.

There’s a mythic quality to her book, a haunting melancholy tone about a time––the late 1960s––in which not just the pair were innocent but life itself was, or seemed to be, more innocent. The political and cultural explosions of the late sixties were yet to occur, and the unraveling of sexual restraints that marked the seventies was still in its infancy. A bohemian existence was cheap, simple; the East Village, its air filled with pot smoke, was “a roving community of young people, sleeping in the parks, in makeshift tents” and according to Smith, young women could find a night’s shelter even in a city graveyard without entertaining “fear of men on the prowl.”

She and Mapplethorpe were both unsophisticated refugees from the sticks, Patti from small-town New Jersey, Mapplethorpe from Floral Park, Queens. Both left their homes and families when they were twenty, just kids, and came to New York penniless and in search of their true selves. A chance encounter brings them together, they quickly form a passionate attachment––Mapplethorpe is not yet fully cognizant of his homosexuality––and for several years afterward they share meager finances, diverse living quarters, physical intimacy, and romantic daydreams. Patti isn’t sure what she wants to be, but hopes to be an artist of some kind. Robert knows he’s a visual artist, but not the paths his talent will take him. She wants to discover her metier. He yearns for fame and fortune.

At first they are like Hansel and Gretel wandering in a skyscraper-woods, collecting beads and bits of colored glass to use in collages, sharing hot dogs, and buying single tickets to museums because that’s all they can afford. One of them goes in to see the show, and reports what’s on the walls  to the waiting other. Eventually, however, their poverty lifts a bit, and they give up walk-ups for a room at the fabled Chelsea Hotel. There they mix it up with rock stars, fashion makhers, Beatnik poets, and Warhol acolytes, celebrities whose names pepper these pages, and achieve the fame and fortune he coveted and which she, through happenstance and connections, attained even before him.

Art, whether visual or verbal, is often as much a matter of omission as commission––the painter’s knowing the power of white space on a canvas, the writer of words unsaid in a dialogue. This book’s power lies in what is off the page as well as what’s on it: the reader’s foreknowledge of the doom that will ultimately destroy the fairy tale. Patti will retreat from the fervid rock scene; Mapplethorpe will die from the plague of the eighties, AIDS. He is diagnosed, Smith writes, “at the same time I found I was carrying my second child.” Although by that time they have lived apart for many years, they still feel a passionate connection to one another. He chides her with “admiration without envy, in our brother-sister language, ‘Patti, you got famous before me.’” She thinks, “My youthful premonition of Robert crumbling into dust returned with pitiless clarity. I saw his impatience to achieve recognition in another light, as if he had the predisposed lifetime of a young pharoah.” And as he lies dying she tells him he has “always been with me, part of who I am.”

Just Kids is a story about lost but lingering love––a touching tale of the devastating effects of maturity on youthful dreams.

To listen to Patti Smith read an excerpt from Just Kids (via NPR), click here. Her website can be accessed here.