Last October, I browsed books in Malaprops, one of my favorite bookstores in Asheville, North Carolina and started to read Patti Smith's memoir of her early days living in New York City -- Just Kids. The words were riveting and I made a mental note to read the book.
I liked the book a lot. Like Patti, I am both a musician and a writer, so there was common ground from the start. But this book is really about her time with Robert Mapplethorpe in the city and the life they led together as they pursued their ambitions to be artists. Just Kids works on many levels. Like many young artists, they struggled not only to work on their art, but also just to survive in the hard-edged Brooklyn and New York of the late Sixties and early Seventies. It's also an improbable love story, as two very different people grow to find their common threads both as artists and at the human level. They both later grew to be famous -- Patti as a punk rock star and Robert as a brilliant but controversial photographer of highly sexualized images -- but this book is mostly about the period before all of that happened. Any artist needs to find their way and the stories about Patti's early love of books and teenage aspirations to make art a part of her life are powerful. She talks about her dreams of working side by side with another artist.
At age twenty, she picks up stake from her home in southern New Jersey and takes a bus trip to New York with drawing pencils, notebook and a few possessions in tow. It's the summer of 1967. Patti sleeps on park benches and fights hunger before she gains the first of several jobs at bookstores. Soon after, she meets Robert and they gradually get to know each other and find places to stay in Brooklyn where he has some friends. Robert shows her his paintings and they realize they have a common love of art.
The book walks through a chronology of the late Sixties and they both pursue their art -- Robert with his drawings and Patti both in drawing and words. They fall in and out of love, but revolve around each other like twin satellites, each caring for and nurturing the other.
Many people have this image of artists or musicians rapidly finding their way and becoming stars at a young age, but this book reveals more typical stories, where both Patti and Robert struggle to find their North Star and have many bumps and side trips along the way. Patti's interest in music evolves slowly, but she sees musicians and performers such as Jim Morrison and internalizes a sense that she also could do that. Robert does cut and paste of the photographs of others and only gradually gets to learn and use the Polaroid instant camera technology which became his prototypical medium.
The book is also a fascinating journey into the world of New York during this period. When they move to a set of apartments called the Chelsea, they find a broader community of artists, both known and aspiring. Along the way, Patti meets famous musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, beat poet Gregory Corso and both Robert and Patti start to hang out at Max's Kansas City in the village and get drawn into the circle of Andy Warhol's followers. They both continue to develop their art and stay close, even though they are drawn to other partners.
In time, Patti dives deep into a love of music and performing, but never lets go of her interests in visual arts and writing, while Robert continues along his path as a photographic artist. One of the touching scenes is when their paths cross again in the late Seventies as they collaborate on a joint show at a New York gallery. By this time, Robert has congratulated Patti on becoming famous first -- her hit "Because the Night" has been released -- and he contributed to her work by posing her for photos which became the covers of her albums.
The book has a sad and poignant coda. The two artists have both become famous for doing what they loved, but Robert contracts AIDS in the mid-Eighties. Patti re-connects with him and she finds ways to help him out. Even as his health declines, Robert helps create more images of Patti for her albums.
Just Kids is powerful and I'd recommend it to any creative person who wants to hear how other artists have found their way to create their art or music and make a living. But it is also a human story, of two people who care for each other no matter what comes their way. Patti's writing is eloquent and fully up to the task of sharing this journey.