After some cursory attention to her childhood, Patti Smith moves very quickly to the heart of her new memoir, Just Kids, with her arrival in New York City in the summer of 1967 in pursuit of the artist's life. She has no money. Friends she hoped would put her up are nowhere to be found. Some kind of job in the arts is out of reach; she is reduced to living on the streets. And then she meets a young man, an artist almost as destitute as she is herself; there is an affinity right from the start. Their relationship seems to have been almost mystically fated. They pool their meager resources, and Smith begins her "vie boheme," with famed photographer, Robert Maplethorpe.
If you are looking for the story of Patti Smith's career as a rock star, Just Kids isn't where you're going to find it. While she does write something about her music and the formation of her band, it only comes at the very end of the book; it is very sketchy at best. For example, she tells more about Maplethorpe's photo session for the Horses album cover than she does about the music itself. This memoir is focused on the period before she became famous. It talks about her poetry; it talks about her drawings, but most of all it talks about her love and friendship for the photographer.
They may have only had enough money to share a hot dog at Nathan's or grilled cheese sandwiches at a local diner, but what they did have was an intense faith in themselves as artists destined to produce work of greatness, coupled with a firm belief that to produce art was perhaps man's noblest ambition. "It's the artist's responsibility," she tells us, "to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation." More often than not she talks about art and artists in religious terms. Jim Morrison is "like a West Coast Saint Sebastian." Birdland is "hallowed ground" that was "blessed by John Coltrane." Maplethorpe's "service was to art, not to church or country." She sets off for New York from her South Jersey home like a Joan of Arc in pursuit of her destined glory.
And she finds it. The late sixties in New York were filled with budding painters, musicians, poets, and actors with the same kind of devotion, not to mention the bevy of artistic "wannabees" and hangers on in pursuit of their own dreams. There were even those poets like the Beats and artists like Andy Warhol, who had already found success. There was a ready-made community with similar values always looking for kindred souls, always willing to see greatness in the work of their friends.
Indeed, the most interesting parts of the book are the anecdotes about the great and the near great. Allen Ginsberg, thinking she's a pretty boy, buys Smith a cheese sandwich at the Automat when she is short of money. Gregory Corso falls asleep in her arm chair while reading her poems and burns a hole in the arm. She goes out to dinner with Sam Sheppard, not realizing he is a famous playwright. Maplethorpe takes her to meet his Catholic family and tells them they are married. She visits Jim Morrison's grave in Paris and is scolded by an old crone caretaker because Americans have no respect for their poets.
Her own prose is at times very poetic, at times somewhat pretentious. At her best she has a knack for just the right inventive image. The first man walking on the moon is putting "rubber treads on a pearl of the gods." Jim Carroll "shot stuff in his freckled hand, like the darker side of Huckleberry Finn." On the other hand she calls a Bob Dylan obsessed fan's analysis of one of his songs an "endless labyrinth of incomprehensible logic." She says Maplethorpe "sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism." Often the high flown mystical language makes an ironic contrast to the sleaziness of the one small room they shared at the Chelsea Hotel and the second hand outfits she is constantly describing.
As memoirs go, the most impressive thing about Just Kids is its honesty. Smith's description of her life with Maplethorpe has the ring of truth. She doesn't seem to have tidied things up. Drugs, sex, poverty—they're all there. Nothing is made to look rosy: except that there were two young people and they had their art and they had each other, and for a time that was enough.