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Holly Cara Price

Holly Cara Price

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Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe: Brainiac Amours in Just Kids

Posted: 02/19/11 10:07 AM ET

Only two pages in and I'm choked with sobs as I read how Patti Smith listened to her soul mate's breathing on the phone as he struggled in the hospital and knew she would never hear him again. Her prose is so spare and clean and full of beauty that I'm drawn in like it's a dream. I don't know why it took me so long to read this book - it's like a dessert that I was saving for a day I needed something sweet. Like the best books, it's changed me and made me remember the girl I was in college and the first time I heard Patti Smith's music.

I was in the Listening Lounge, this room we had where you could go into a booth and listen with headphones to albums on turntables. I'm not sure who urged me to listen to Horses - probably my roommate, Kate - but I do remember the first time I heard the trancelike song-poem, Birdland. I rang like a bell.

His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene
And the boy was just standing there alone
Looking at the shiny red tractor
Him and his daddy used to sit inside
And circle the blue fields and grease the night.
It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
'Cause when he looked up they started to slip...

Although I was quite taken by the reggae bop of Redondo Beach, the sisterly love song Kimberly, of course the rock&roll manifesto Gloria, and the sad sweetness of Elegie (I absolutely lost it for lines like memory falls like cream in my bones) - Birdland stopped the world for me and changed everything I knew to expect from rock & roll. Oh My God she was a poet with an electric guitar who's mantra was three chords merged with the power of the word. And then, stunned: Oh My God she's a woman. A woman like me.

It was 1975. I had two more years of college to go. My major was "Creative Writing and Photography." I was attending what we now would call a hippie school, one where you were able to actually design your own major. Friends of mine got college credit for independent studies for which they spent weeks hitchhiking all over the country and keeping a journal. Things were like that then. I began to follow Patti Smith's career, and decided above all I had to move to New York City as soon as I could after graduation. I made a few pilgrimages there, eagerly buying first editions of all her poetry books at the Gotham Book Mart.

I'm here now, but there were a few stops in New England on the way before getting here finally in the fall of 1979. I'm telling you this because nothing's ever brought me back to the nascent innocence of that time as thoroughly as reading Just Kids. It perfectly captures New York in the late 60's and in the 1970's, when things were a hell of a lot wilder and more dangerous. And more magical, perhaps. It was a place where two misfits like Smith and Mapplethorpe could find one another serendipitously on a street corner and become life long friends. A place where one could by chance run into Allen Ginsberg at the Automat. Or Jimi Hendrix at a recording studio. Or Janis Joplin in a hotel lobby. A place where one could - as Smith did - live on the street for weeks at a time, scraping change together for a meal once a day. And live to tell about it, and then some.

The book makes Patti Smith real in a way she never has been before, for me. She was a shaman, a savior - but not a real person. She's still a shaman and a savior, but now she's real to me also; I have a context for her childhood and her growing up years, what shaped her, what formed her. Her deepest sadnesses, her losses. Her joys, her achievements. And at it's heart, Just Kids is the story of the sacred relationship with Robert, whom she has so honored in these pages, a story she promised him she would share with the world. "We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined."

Robert and Patti fit together like the pieces of a puzzle from the moment they meet. She's the strong one from the outset; working odd jobs here and there so he can do his art. They exchange gifts, talismans, holy objects, including a necklace that goes back and forth between them for years. Their heroes are Rimbaud, Dylan, Genet, the Doors, Verlaine, William Burroughs, the Rolling Stones, the Marvelettes. Destitute and homeless, they find their way to the Chelsea Hotel which had nurtured artists since it opened its doors 127 years ago. Using their own art as collateral, these "wild, feral children" find a home there.

The evolution of their artwork is fascinating as well. Smith describes Mapplethorpe's art thus: "Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art... sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism." Smith, meanwhile, evolves from a shy young girl into "a Mickey Spillane type, exercising my hard, ironic edge." She meets Lenny Kaye, who becomes her musical sergeant-at-arms, and forms her band, plays CBGB's, and eventually changes the face of rock music forever.

Whether or not you were there, had your world broken open by her music, or not, the fragile loving beauty of this book can't be denied. Inside it's core, Just Kids is the story of two young people who find in each other their soul's mirror. There's no one on earth who can't relate to that.

 

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