Just Kids – Patti Smith’s award-winning book – is not your typical rock ‘n’ roll bio. In fact, Smith’s emergence as a fully-fledged rock star is only touched upon in the last quarter of the book. Instead, the focus of this autobiography is Smith’s relationship with photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe – her close friend for over 20 years.
The book begins with Smith’s childhood in New Jersey, where she develops an early fascination with poetry and art, interests she will eventually share with fellow outsider, Mapplethorpe. As a teenager, unhappy with life in rural South Jersey, she scrapes together enough money for a one-way ticket to New York, and with little more than a suitcase of belongings, heads to the city in search of a more like-minded community.
Patti Smith’s trials as she doggedly follows this path are often harrowing. Naïve and socially awkward, she lives on the streets, sleeping in doorways and scrounging for money and food. A job in a bookstore brings some relief, and it is here she meets Mapplethorpe. Like Smith, he has abandoned his life and family in the suburbs for the big city. They become friends, then lovers, forging a partnership devoted to their passion for art.
After establishing this bond, Just Kids, follows the couple as they struggle to stay afloat. But while day-to-day life remains difficult, Smith and Mapplethorpe keep true to their artistic vision. And after several years on the periphery of New York’s art scene, their arrival at the Chelsea Hotel eventually delivers the opportunities and connections that will bring them fame and success.
Smith’s vivid and imaginative description of late 60’s New York is just one of the many pleasures of Just Kids. The hellish Allerton Hotel ‘reeking of piss and exterminator fluid, the wallpaper peeling like dead skin in summer’ becomes a kind of purgatory for lost souls. While the fashionably seedy Chelsea Hotel ‘was like a doll’s house in the twilight zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe’.
The book is filled with the unique personalities that made New York the centre of alternative Western culture – the Beat Poets, the Warhol crowd, the Woodstock generation of rock ‘n’ roll stars. Smith has a gift for portraying even the most outrageous characters with great generosity.
Ultimately, though, the story is devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s hero and soul mate and, as he nears a premature death, the final section of the book reads as a kind of elegy.
Just Kids is a fascinating depiction of time and place, a moving tribute to a lost friend, and a recommended read for music fans and general readers alike.