The child of her times
Looking back on life with lover Robert Mapplethorpe in late Sixties New York, the grandmother of punk recalls days of youth and tragedy, writes Frieda Klotz
Published 28/02/2010 | 05:00
JUST KIDS is an evocative title, which suitably sums up this memoir of New York iconoclast Patti Smith. Smith was just 20 when she moved to New York, and her account gives a rich portrait of life in the city as the late Sixties merged with the Seventies.
Though Smith could be accused of self-mythologising, she gives her story a sense of innocence and purity. She may be famous now, called by some the grandmother of punk, but then she was shy and young. It's a story worth telling: many of the celebrated figures of the era -- Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg and a host of others -- play a part in it.
The book is about youthful rites of passage but it's also about death. Soon after her arrival in the city, Smith met Robert Mapplethorpe, a fellow dreamer and artist, and in many ways Just Kids is about their intense friendship. He died in 1989 from Aids, aged 43. Smith starts the book with his death, and its expectation hangs over her writing. She recalls watching him while he slept, and observes, "I would someday hold his ashes in my hand."
Smith at first seems an unlikely candidate for rock 'n' roll stardom. She grew up in Pennsylvania. Her parents had Irish ancestry and she tells how as a child she and her friends played out the Irish conflict: "We fought the wars of our Irish grandfathers, the orange and the green. We wore the orange yet knew nothing of its meaning." Her father thought she was so unattractive, no man would love her, insisting she attend teachers' college so she could support herself. When she left for New York her mother gave her a waitress's uniform so she could get a job, but added that she would never last as a waitress. (She didn't.)
Still a teenager, Smith had become pregnant by a local boy "so inexperienced that he could hardly be held accountable" and was expelled from college. At the hospital, "due to my unwed status, the nurses were very cruel and uncaring, and left me on a table for several hours before informing the doctor that I had gone into labour," she says.
"They ridiculed me for my beatnik appearance and immoral behaviour, calling me 'Dracula's daughter' and threatening to cut my long black hair. When the doctor arrived, he was very angry. I could hear him yelling at the nurses that I was having a breech birth and I should not have been left alone."
But she survived, gave the girl up for adoption, and left. "I vowed ... I would make something of myself," she says. Even so, on her first night in New York she slept rough outside. She was introverted, and disliked parties. Gradually she found her footing in the city and became more confident.
One of the remarkable things about Smith's storytelling is its lack of bitterness. She and Mapplethorpe were lovers for quite a while before he came to terms with his homosexuality. He cheated on her with a boyfriend and gave her a sexually transmitted disease. She records these facts but does not appear to hold a grudge; later, both men and women would ask her how to seduce him and she would give them advice. Another lover, a poet and heroin addict called Jim Carroll, rejected her. Like Mapplethorpe he hustled, selling his body on the streets for cash. "I knew he didn't love me but I adored him anyway," Smith says.
Smith is known for her gender-ambiguous look, and her relationship with Mapplethorpe overturned traditional gender roles too. She was the caretaker, working and supporting him because he was too flighty and moody to hold down a regular job. When they went out, she was ready in 10 minutes, but he would spend hours getting dressed, smoking weed and perfecting his outfit. She bought him food and looked after him when he was ill. Money was always a worry. "I was always hungry," she says. "If we were out of money we just didn't eat."
Mapplethorpe was a photographer, and it was he who took the famous image for Smith's debut album, Horses, showing her androgynous in braces with her jacket slung over her shoulders. Photographs by him, ghostly and luminous, punctuate the book, complementing Smith's account and revealing just how young the two really were. Mapplethorpe would go on to document extreme lifestyles and gay sadomasochistic activities that shocked Smith. "It was hard for me to match it with the boy I had met," she records.
The highpoint of their life together was at the Chelsea Hotel, where they lived, first in room 1017, then the bigger room 204. A rag-tag gang of older artists, musicians and writers befriended the young couple. "Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody."
A sense of tragedy hangs over the characters in the story. Many die of drug overdoses or through suicide as the years go on, while others, like Mapplethorpe and his long-term lover Sam Wagstaff, would die of Aids. Although Smith captures the wildness and creativity we have come to associate with the Sixties, her glasses are not entirely rose-tinted. The year of 1969, for instance, that saw both Woodstock and the Manson murders, was eerie rather than festive, a "masked ball of confusion".
This sense of doubleness reverberates in Just Kids. Mapplethorpe was beautiful and talented but would die young, like many of their peers. The book's characters have their fill of celebration and tragedy.
Smith is now 64, and her memoir is really about growing up. One of her anecdotes in particular suggests this. In their early New York days, she and Mapplethorpe were sitting by a fountain in Washington Square surrounded by bongo-players and barking dogs. A couple walked past them. "Oh, take their picture," said the woman to her bemused husband, "I think they're artists." "Oh go on," he shrugged. "They're just kids." In Smith's mind, they were both.