No 711 Just Kids by Patti Smith

just kids

I don’t know a lot about Patti Smith and I haven’t listened to a lot of her music. Horses is fine, but I’m not a fan.

I think it is important to say that at the start, because I imagine that your reaction to Just Kids will depend entirely on your position on Patti Smith.

On the other hand, I like Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. I know, I know, not necessarily the S&M shots he’s famous for, but his flower photographs are stunning and often overshadowed by his reputation and his lifestyle.

Image courtesy of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

So really, I was reading this book to learn more about Mapplethorpe rather than to learn more about Patti and throw in the juicy details about the Factory and the residents of the Chelsea Hotel and the book becomes very appealing.

Now, it’s not that I want to take the piss out of Patti, but I’m afraid she’s giving it away. This book is so easy to parody that it is frightening. Here’s my attempt.

It was Joan of Arcs birthday. Sitting I was, in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel writing a prose poem on Rimbaud when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Salvador Dali/ Jim Morrison/ Allen Ginsberg (delete as appropriate) admiring the French fisherman’s cap that I was wearing as part of my Godard ensemble. We discoursed on everything from Tibetan throat singers to the notion of perspectivism in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. I gave him a handmade leather bracelet and he gave me a feather, which Robert later included in his latest installation about Verlaine’s symbolism. He recited some Walt Whitman to me as he left and his words made me feel like my work mattered. Later that evening I took a lock of hair from Robert and sang him to sleep with his favourite Jacques Brel song and while he slept I created Art and thought about Rimbaud some more

In Patti’s world, men recite William Blake, everyone gives everyone else talismanic gifts of silver skulls and coloured stones, locks of hair are cut with abandon and there is always, always a famous person around the next corner. There are no less than 35 references to Rimbaud (she’s a fan you know) in this book. I tried to keep a track of all the poets/ philosophers/ artists/ writers/ musicians that are mentioned, but there are often as many as 5 – 10 per page. Patti wants you to know she’s artistic. And I’m sure she is, it’s just that the constant reinforcing of her intellectual and artistic bent is exhausting and often frustrating.

There is also a real sense that this book has been written in the glow of rose-tinted glasses. Don’t get me wrong, the book is mythic tale as it follows the young and desperate poet who, after giving up her baby for adoption, moves to New York with nothing, meets Mapplethorpe by chance and they embark on a life of artistic endeavor, hunger and the search for immortality and beauty before finding incredible success in their respective fields. But there is little of the pain in Just Kids. Patti and Robert worry about money, yes, but never seem hungry. Patti never mentions the baby she had and gave up again. When men let her down, and for that matter, when Robert ‘discovers’ he is gay, Patti is always magnanimous and gracious and never hurt and I just found this all a little hard to believe.

Patti Smith said she promised Robert she would write their story, but there is little of Robert in the book. He is an elusive presence in these pages. His struggle with his sexuality and his immersion into the world of S&M and prostitution is given scant detail. Undoubtedly theirs was a strong and loving relationship, both emotionally and artistically but it cannot have been an easy one and by the end of the book, he still comes across as a romantic enigma.


Having said all that, I still enjoyed reading the book because, let’s face it, who isn’t compelled by the bohemian artistic lifestyle of the Chelsea Hotel and the Factory in the late 1960’s and early 70’s? It was a heady, intoxicating time and Smith is clever enough to focus almost the entire book on a period of a few years when she and Robert were building their careers and meeting the right people.

Patti & Robert at the Chelsea Hotel
Patti & Robert at the Chelsea Hotel

Whether Smith means to or not, there is a sense that they were two people in the right place at the right time, in the centre of the storm, with Patti in particular working out which part to play to gain advantage. Poet? Artist? Musician? She gives everything a try until something works, all the while honing her image to her best advantage. On meeting Tom Verlaine from the band Television she says,

Divining how to appeal to Tom’s sensibilities, I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand; black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol

Patti plays a lot of dress up and it seems to me that of the two of them, Mapplethorpe was the one that artistically and personally really came to know and express himself. Even Patti acknowledges it when Mapplethorpe is taking the famous image of her for the album cover of Horses,

I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of shadows and light.

Even more tellingly she says

Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph.


Mapplethorpe's iconic cover of Horses
Mapplethorpe’s iconic cover of Horses

She has the knack for a great turn of phrase, but for a poet, some of the writing is overwrought, clunky and sometimes just nonsensical.

He was holding a carton of milk, as if he were about to pour it in the saucers of his eyes

Yet when she writes about Robert’s battle with AIDS and his subsequent death, the book comes in to its own. The writing is moving, elegiac and for the first time, the real love and devotion between these two artists is clear.

The light poured through the windows upon his photographs and the poem of us sitting together a last time. Robert dying; creating silence. Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express.

The end comes quick. Patti tells us little of her time as a successful punk singer and little about Robert’s meteoric rise in the art world. She marries and has children. That’s about as much as we get, and while the lack of detail during the latter part of the book can be a little frustrating, it’s understandable. That is not their story. It is not the story of their life together. Their life was centred on the exciting world of New York in the 1970s – the pain and poverty, the artistic process and the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past. It was the moment New York was becoming the cultural capital of the Western world and they were there. Playing their parts.

Ours were ragtag days and nights, as quixotic as Keats and as rude as the lice we both came to suffer, each certain they originated from the other as we underwent the tedious regimen of Kwell lice shampooing in any one of the unmanned Chelsea Hotel bathrooms

Personally, I could have done with less of the Keats and more of the lice…..


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29 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I was looking forward to your take on this one Cathy- you nailed it as usual. I was terribly caught up in the book and fell for it without any objective distance- but this can be, and is often my weakness when something has that sort of wild, lost romanticism (and history to boot). I didn’t think you were negative at all- I thought you made some excellent observations…..


    • Oh I was caught up too Maggie, it was such a seductive time and place. Robert just never really came through for me. Maybe I’m just jealous because she had an affair with Sam Sheperd. 😉


  2. i thought i was one of the few people left who had not read this book. I am not a huge fan of either Mapplethorpe or Smith, but I’m all about the Chelsea hotel. Your’s is the first review that I’ve read that is not absolutely glowing and I appreciate that. Overall your description kind of meet with my expectations of the book.


  3. I wouldn’t normally read a book like this, but your review of it was great! I got a really good sense of the book and even of Smith and Mapplethorpe, who I don’t know much about.


  4. Haha! Nice parody. I loved the book though, I was quite happy to be caught up in the romanticised recreation of 1970s New York. I hear there’s to be a sequel about her life with Fred Smith…


  5. Great review! I read this for a book club earlier this year and I had similar thoughts. Part of it seemed like bragging to me and I wish she’d focused more on Robert because it seemed the tribute to him was shadowed by her own story. I’m not a Smith fan, either, and I think that tinted my feelings on it. Many of my fellow book-club members were fans of hers (she lived in the Detroit area, where I live, for a time) and they got a lot more out of the story than I did.
    Happy Reading.


  6. I think this is the best review of this book I’ve read. Alas, I haven’t cracked the pages of Just Kids, but I do love the flower photos that Mapplethorpe did. I actually grew up close to a museum that displayed them for years. They are quite impressive to see in person.


    • Wow, I would love to see the flower prints. Our gallery had the opportunity to hire a Mapplethorpe touring exhibition, but the bosses ran scared in case we got less flowers and more nudes!


      • It’s really odd now that I think about it, but the flowers were part of the standing exhibition (the museum must owned them in their collection) and they were always placed on the wall right near the toilets.


  7. I loved her descriptions of living – sometimes literally – in the gutter, in New York; and the dishevelled characters and bohemians she was hanging around with. I appreciated her explanations of her artistic development. One thing I can’t understand is the satanism – I mean I’m not a big religious nut but why are people like her drawn to that?


    • Totally agree, maybe they are drawn to it because it is the ultimate rebellion? I could have done with more detail about living in the gutter to be honest, it was a fun book, although sometimes she drove me mad. The world of the Chelsea is an intoxicating one though.


  8. You made it to the end; I only got about 30 pages in before giving up for basically all the reason you name above. I am a fan of both, and continue to be one, though I think her songs are holding up better than his photographs do at this point. My partner read this book though he does not know the work of either one very well, and he loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

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