Late in 1975, I was in my last year of college, studying for final exams. My roommate came home with a couple of tickets a friend had given her. They were for a poetry reading at the Roxy, on Sunset Strip.
The Roxy was and is a showcase venue, but I didn’t know that then. I thought, “Oh, gawd...some boring feminist poet, no thanks,” and I said I couldn’t go. Too much work to do. She started in with the guilt. Her date had cancelled, she didn’t want to go alone, etc, etc. I’d had enough standard deviation for one night. I went.
We got to the club, which hadn’t been open long. There weren’t many people, so few, in fact, that we got a table. I remember noticing that there was a drum kit on the tiny stage, guitars, a band setup. Curious. The lights went down and a strange, androgynous figure stepped out, picked up a guitar, stepped up to the mike and intoned: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”
The band came in behind her with the slow grinding buildup to “Gloria.” By the end of the song I was on my feet; soon after, standing on my chair. Seeing this show changed everything for me. And I almost hadn’t gone.
“Just Kids” is an autobiography, and, more than that, the epic love story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Their meeting in the summer of 1967 was as much by chance as my first look at Patti Smith. At 20, she had boarded a bus from her South Jersey home to New York, and found that her acquaintances, who’d promised her a room, had moved without telling her. Mapplethorpe was the new tenant. Seems like fate, doesn’t it?
Their penniless romance took place in the sleazy New York of the Seventies, in the streets, in fleabag hotels, unheated lofts and back rooms. It’s told in such a matter-of-fact way that it could be almost anyone’s autobiography, except that it isn’t. It’s a chronicle of the hardcore struggles of two half-starved half-children who could never have imagined any other choices than those of artists. Smith recounts Mapplethrope’s turn to other men and S & M while still with her in the same “this happened and then that happened” style, but her words echo the pain and confusion she felt. Still, all she was demanded that she let him go, and she did.
They remained friends, as close as two people can be, as he went on to do the photographic work he became notorious for and she delved deeper into rock and roll imagery. With a new, self-inflicted Keith Richards haircut and a getup she calls her “Br'er Rabbit look,” she was scribbling in the lobby of a way-off-Broadway theater, and it was there that she was noticed by musician Bob Neuwirth, who she calls a painter/provocateur and “Bob Dylan’s alter-ego.” They talked. He read her poems. He asked her to write him a song. She declined. She was a poet, not a songwriter, she said.
But this chance encounter opened doors. She recounts her rise through the music underground, as Mapplethorpe takes another route to his success, the gay culture and the art world. Still, they stayed together. It was Mapplethorpe who took the iconic photos of her that became the cover of her first album, “Horses.”
“Just Kids” begins with Mapplethorpe’s death. Smith, on long-distance deathwatch, gets the phone call and begins to spin out these memories. They become the book.
I don’t think anyone -- me, most of all -- ever expected that Patti Smith would see 30, much less become the rock and roll godmother she is now. She glosses over her own experimentations here, but I saw her again in the late Seventies, right before she fell off the stage in Tampa, and she was transcendent but barely in control. I thought she’d be like her idols Brian Jones or Jimi Hendrix, a roman candle that goes up fast and then flares out. She surprised me. She recovered, married guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and retired to raise a family.
I saw her again a couple of years ago. As skinny as ever, back on tour, a widow now with long, witchy gray hair, she was like a friendly neighbor, talking to people in the audience, people in their Twenties she now calls “my kids,” as politically fired up as ever, but tempered with the wisdom of age. She’s still one of my idols. She did everything, did it well, and keeps on doing it well.
But in those few moments in 1975, I knew I was looking at the spirit of all of it -- rock, resurrection, sanity/insanity and ultimately divination, in this persona, this unlikely, stick-thin shaman who turned out to be as wise and multifaceted a woman imaginable.
"Just Kids" was published by HarperCollins in 2010. The ISBN is 978-0-06-621131-2.
Photo of Patti Smith by Daigo Oliva, 2006; Flikr/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.