Friday, July 19, 2024

Just Kids

Patti Smith and the 1970s New York art scene

Patti Smith, born in Chicago in 1946, is an American artist, poet, author, songwriter and singer. Just Kids, a National Book Award winner, is a memoir of her early adulthood in New York and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, a provocative photographer who died of AIDS at the age of 43. 

Major themes include love, art and literature, rock n’ roll, sexuality and loss. Smith’s writing style can best be described as poetic prose. Her use of language and imagery is transporting, and this effect is heightened by the interspersal of black and white photos throughout the book. 

Like the works referenced by Smith in Just Kids, this book is a work of art. If you end up reading Just Kids and want more of Smith’s writing, I would highly recommend M Train as well. 

Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith 

At the beginning of the memoir, Smith describes her arrival to New York in July 1967 at the age of 21. She is virtually broke and spends the summer living on the streets. 

“It was the summer Coltrane died. The Summer of ‘Crystal Ship,’” she recalls. “Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire in Monterey…The summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life. It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.” 

Not only does this quote introduce Robert Mapplethorpe into the story, but it also alludes to 1960s and 1970s popular culture—a theme that will remain consistent throughout the rest of the novel. 

Robert Mapplethorpe

On Smith’s first day in New York, she meets Mapplethorpe by chance and later runs into him two more times. After their third random encounter, they never leave each other’s side and decide to move in together. Smith describes how they spend this time creating art together and listening to the few records they own on repeat. However, as time goes by, Smith and Mapplethorpe grow apart romantically as he comes to terms with his sexuality and as they explore different creative paths. The evolution of their relationship is followed throughout the rest of the memoir. 

The Hotel Chelsea

One of the main settings in Just Kids is the iconic Hotel Chelsea which Smith and Mapplethorpe move into in 1969. This is where they really get involved in the art scene. The Chelsea is a massive hotel that was built in the 1880s and became a sort of artist colony in the late 60s and early 70s housing the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and many more. 

At the Chelsea, Smith meets some of these figures and makes connections with many others who will help propel her into the art scene and the music industry. 

Smith describes the Chelsea as a place of magic. 

“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively.” 

I’ve actually visited the Chelsea, and I can attest that it has a unique energy that can only be attributed to its long history and the multitude of artists who have stayed there over the centuries. 

Music

Smith explains how she inadvertently falls into music. In 1971, she performs a live poetry reading with an electric guitar accompaniment by Lenny Kaye. The pair continue to experiment with poetry and instrumentals and eventually start creating and recording music. The Patti Smith Group is formed two years later in 1973 with the addition of several other musicians. 

The band starts gaining recognition at CBGB, an iconic club in New York that was originally established as a venue for country, bluegrass and blues performances but ended up becoming the birthplace of American punk rock. 

In 1975, the Patti Smith Group releases the album Horsesa generally recognized masterpiece ranking 26 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 best albums of all time—which she explains was created as a tribute to rock ‘n’ roll and to all the artists who had come before her. 

The setting at the Chelsea, her accounts of celebrities and artists and her description of major national and international events (like the Manson murders) makes Just Kids an incredible primary source on life in America in the 70s, specifically life in the New York art scene of this period, and the artists who revolutionized North American popular culture. 

One of these artists is Smith herself: As a result of her band’s participation at CBGB and their groundbreaking album, Smith unintentionally played a major role in the development of punk, so much so that she is commonly known as the ‘Godmother of Punk,’ although this is a title she doesn’t identify with.

Smith and Mapplethorpe

The rest of the memoir describes her changing relationship dynamics with Mapplethorpe and his eventual death in 1989. 

Despite ending their romantic relationship, Smith and Mapplethorpe still remain hugely important figures in each others’ lives and it’s clear to the reader that they are soulmates.

“Robert and I still kept our vow. Neither would leave the other. I never saw him through the lens of his sexuality. My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life.” 

At the end of the book, the reader is reminded that despite being a memoir about Smith’s life, career and art, Just Kids is ultimately a love story in memory of Mapplethorpe.

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