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Rock/Pop

Promises fulfilled

Patti Smith's fascinating new memoir captures what it was to be young, free and artistic in a New York now lost to the ages

A good boy trying to be bad.: Mapplethorpe (left) with Smith.
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Published 2/17/2010

Love relationships between great artists have inspired some fine literature throughout history, be it works the artists created for each other during their own lifetimes or as fodder for novels, memoirs or even motion pictures and plays after the fact. Surely one of the greatest such love affairs of the past half century was the one between Patti Smith, who helped give birth to punk rock by merging three chords with the power of her poetry, and Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer whose graphic S&M images would later spark one of the most publicized cultural battles between art aficionados in modern history. The greatness of that relationship would probably be indisputable even if it had generated nothing more than the iconic Mapplethorpe-shot Smith portrait that graces the cover of her debut Horses album, which is still as stunning today — well, at least when viewed at 12 inches — as it was in 1975.

In Just Kids, Smith's new memoir about their relationship and love affair (or as Smith so sweetly described it during a recent TV interview with Tavis Smiley: "He was my boyfriend"), she admits the androgyny thing — one of the numerous traits the couple shared and which was accentuated on the Horses cover — was deliberate, especially after she cut her hair to resemble Keith Richards' do, even if she had no idea of what the word meant at the time. When a friend finally tells her that androgyny is, "You know, like Mick Jagger," Smith writes that she simply "figured that must be cool."

It's these little morsels of youthful naveté, delivered with the luxury of adult hindsight, that make Just Kids such a wonderful read. The book has that same dual childlike fascination (she describes here how, as a child, she began to observe the world quite differently from the norm) and maternal wisdom she's brought to most of her greatest art. Even as far back as Horses, one immediately got the sense that Smith was someone who'd experienced things the majority of us hadn't. And great portions of Just Kids prove that she absolutely did, especially when viewed from a "rubbing-shoulders-with-the-birth-of-a-counterculture" perspective ... and especially after the couple moves into New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel in 1969. One of the book's funniest stories finds beat poet Allen Ginsberg trying to pick Smith up during their first meeting, mistaking her for a particularly attractive male youth.

There are encounters with, and stories involving, a who's who of cultural touchstones from the era. Smith's there when Kris Kristofferson first plays "Me and Bobby McGee" for Janis Joplin in New York; it's later suggested that Smith is the one who gave a dejected Joplin the moniker "Pearl." Everyone from Arthur C. Clarke and folklorist Harry Smith to Bobby Neuwirth, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix make appearances in this story. There are also anecdotes about the whole Max's Kansas City scene and Warhol crew, even though the writer admits she wasn't a big fan of Warhol himself ("I hated the soup and felt very little for the can.")

Smith also writes of her subsequent New York love affairs after Mapplethorpe. With playwright and collaborator (and future movie star) Sam Shepard, who was the one who gave her the courage to finally perform in public. With Blue Oyster Cult's Allen Lanier. With fellow poet and future rock star Jim Carroll, who, like Mapplethorpe, helped support himself early on as a male street hustler but also tells her he was "not gay" because, unlike Mapplethorpe — whose homosexuality began to emerge during his years with Smith — Carroll only ever did it for the money.

More importantly, however, this is ultimately a book about how the seminal union between the two artists featured on its cover inspired and supported each other in what would be a lifelong spiritual bonding. Mapplethorpe would color Smith's life, career and art, obviously even all the years after his death. She promised Mapplethorpe she'd write their story the day before his 1989 death from AIDS, so Just Kids is more than just a memoir; it's the fulfillment of an oath. "I was a bad girl trying to be good," she writes of their blooming love early in the book, "and he was a good boy trying to be bad." It's interesting to note, especially in retrospect, how well both of them managed to achieve those ambitions.

Smith had little more than a book of poetry by her idol Arthur Rimbaud and the dreams she dreamed as a working-class kid in New Jersey when she arrived in Manhattan in 1967, smack-dab in the middle of the Summer of Love. She was fresh from a series of menial jobs she'd later describe in her first single as a "Piss Factory." A teachers college dropout, she had also recently given up a child from an unintended pregnancy for adoption. Smith meets the former Catholic altar boy and aspiring artist her first day in the new city and they are soon constant companions. He'd also prove, in many ways, to be her salvation. Some reviewers have complained about the short shrift she gives to a few seemingly important moments in her life, such as the entire CBGB's scene, which is described and wrapped up in a mere four pages. But it would seem that everything featured in Just Kids is based solely on how it's relatable to Mapplethorpe and their relationship. For instance, probably the only reason she mentions something like her collaboration with Springsteen on "Because the Night" is because Mapplethorpe teased her — "Patti, you got famous before me" — after the record became a hit.

What's perhaps most captivating about this memoir, though, is how well Smith captures what it was to be an artist at that particular time and in that particular place — so full of hope, youth and spirit or what she later described as the "sea of possibilities" on Horses. It's also a vivid portrait of the New York City that many of us may remember but is now long lost to eternity. And it's almost cinematic in its portrayal of what it was to be truly bohemian in those days, when there still were genuine countercultures and everything "underground" couldn't be co-opted by Internet users in a matter of days, if not hours.

But more than anything, it's a book about the true belief in the power of art, of being an artist and, of course, love. "You drew me from the darkest period of my young life," she later wrote to Mapplethorpe (whose S&M imagery, Smith admits, she found frightening and bewildering), "sharing with me the sacred ministry of what it means to be an artist." She credits him with introducing her to "a whole universe I had yet to know." No artist could ask for a finer elegy.

Just Kids begins and ends with the phone call Smith received early one morning, informing her of Mapplethorpe's death. She's living in the Detroit area by that time with husband (and former MC5 star) Fred "Sonic" Smith; he and their two young children still asleep upstairs. It's early March, so we can all imagine the darkness that would be surrounding her that time of year in Michigan, even if it hadn't been early morning. As a result, the remembrances here are as chilling as they are beautiful, as sad as they are inspiring. But perhaps the finest element of Just Kids — as well as the end result of the love affair between these two star-crossed kids — is that it proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that youth isn't always wasted on the young.

Motor City Five with Patti Smith

1. Metro Times: Do you think you'll be writing more memoirs in the future? And more specifically for our purposes, one about your years in Detroit, a part of your life that hasn't really been explored that in-depth?

Patti Smith: I will find my own way to speak of Fred and our life. Fred was a very private man and our true legacy is our children.

2. MT: What are your fondest/best memories of your time here in Detroit?

Smith: My most enduring memories of Detroit are meeting Fred at the Layfayette Coney Island on March 9, 1976. Our wedding at the Detroit Mariner's Church on March 1, 1980. And the births of our son, Jackson, in 1982, and our daughter, Jesse, in 1987, in St. John Hospital.

3. MT: You're one of the few very successful musical artists, along with John Lennon, who famously turned away from the fame and rock 'n' roll game to pursue a more private and "real" lifestyle. Was leaving rock 'n' roll a difficult decision for you at the time?

Smith: When I left the public eye in 1979, I felt that I had contributed all I knew in the arena of rock 'n' roll. I felt I had accomplished the mission I had laid out for my band and myself. I have never regretted my decision. My time with Fred was precious and my evolution as a human being, through him, priceless.

4. MT: Do you still feel and stay connected to Detroit?

Smith: My son Jackson and his wife [Meg White] live in Detroit. Fred is buried in Detroit. So my emotional connection to the city is strong.

5. MT: What's next for you, musically? When can we expect a new Patti Smith album?

Smith: I'm currently recording a new album.


Patti Smith plays with her band on Friday, Feb. 19, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-8137. She also will be reading from and signing Just Kids at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, at Borders, 612 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor; 734-668-7652. The latter is a free event but wristbands are required. Call the store for details.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:letters@metrotimes.com.

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