patti smith's "just kids" is one of the best memoirs that i've ever read - the very short version! her look back at the unique love affair that she and robert mapplethorpe shared from their first meeting in 1967 until his incredibly tragic death at 42 years old from aids in 1989 is an intimate and mesmerizing look at the lives of a pair of struggling artists well before days of fame and recognition overtook them. while, ostensibly, an autobiographical look at her early days, it also serves as a moving eulogy for her eternal soul mate.
"just kids" style is similar to bob dylan's "chronicles: volume one" - details of a bygone era close enough in time to seem like yesterday, but far enough removed from our current realities that they are worlds gone by. dylan's excavated the folk byways of an early sixties greenwich village scene. smith paints the late sixties brooklyn and then moves on to manhattan - chelsea in particular - during the early seventies. her narrative style is rich in place names, textures, feeling - a veritable prose poem of descriptions. it's one of those rare works that's enjoyable just for the words.
patti and robert were, in every sense, starving artists. the amount of hunger they endured in those early years seems harrowing in retrospect. one of their favorite excursions was the train ride to coney island, where they spent the day taking in the scene. robert loved nathan's hot dogs. they could only afford one, which they would split. for days they would subsist on stale bread and cookies from a sympathetic bakery! the choice between food and art was literally that, as they often stood outside stores debating whether to purchase art supplies or a meal!
even when they moved into the city - and earned a foothold in the notorious chelsea hotel (the smallest room in the place, on the ground floor) - hunger followed them. in a prophetic meeting, patti stood in front of a cheese sandwich at the automat, without enough money to buy it. allen ginsberg happened by her and, thinking she was a he, off to buy it for her. embarrassed at the discovery, he still pays for her meal. ginsberg, wondering for posterity at the time(!) asked her how she'd report it. patti replied that she'd say "he fed her when she was hungry."
patti, more often than not, was the bread-winner (forgive the pun) those years. she took a number of jobs at bookstores such as bretanos, and even toiled away in the basement of the strand for a while. she also wrote the record reviews for publication. then she would collect the reviewer copies and sell them for extra cash. she would also searched out first editions and overlooked important books at flea markets and used books, then turn around and sell them for a profit. robert too, also found the occasional odd job, but wasn't as successful staying at one place. eventually he drifted into the world of hustling to earn money.
together, for a poor couple they collected - and prized - an eclectic assortment of possessions, which sometimes found their way into robert's collages. in those days he didn't even own a camera, much less take photographs! it was at her urging that he eventually borrowed a polaroid camera from a friend and began on his road to photographic fame. likewise, it was robert who urged patti to put her poem to music - and get out in front of people to perform them!
they had a very interesting circle of friends and patti, especially, found common ground with gregory corso and william burroughs! but it was sam shephard who purchased her a 1931 gibson guitar and taught her how to improvise ("it's like drumming. if you miss a beat, you create another"), as they co-wrote a short play together. and she would move on to live with allen lanier, keyboardist for blue oyster cult, as the merger of her poetry and music became more and more concrete.
it was in 1971, at st. marks church, that patti took the stage with lenny kaye providing accompaniment on his electric guitar - that she gave her first public performance. it was a first for st. marks poetry project as well - no one had ever played an electric guitar on stage there! it was reminiscent to dylan's going electric at the newport jazz festival, down to the sparse collection of boos in an audience filled with poets and musicians! after that night, patti smith was famous - "bombarded" with offers to publish and record her work!
"i felt it came too easy," she writes. but given what we've read up to that point, easy is hardly the word choice. she endured struggle after struggle to arrive at that stage. robert teased her afterwards, "patti you've become famous before me." by that time, while patti and robert were still sole mates, they had moved on to different partners. by the end of the decade, she married and moved to detroit to start and raise a family. she reconnected with robert when she learned that he was dying from aids
it was during that last year together that she promised robert that she would tell his story - and "just kids" is that remarkable story.