Last Saturday, I had one of those jittery, jumping, monkey-mind mornings—the kind that sometimes happen when the machine is on and the shiny buttons beckon. Click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on email, click on news, click on email, back to news—and even though I felt myself sinking in the slough of despond, I just kept clicking away.
Granted, the despond was partly due to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, who’d rejected my offer to do a reading there. I wasn’t famous enough, they wouldn’t sell enough copies of my book to make it worth their while. But all that clicking also meant ignoring what feeds me: Art. Creativity. Writing. Engagement with the world of weather and people and city streets. So I wrenched myself away from the desk, stuffed Patti Smith’s Just Kids in my bag and bolted.
Virginia Woolf once left her house for a winter walk across London on the pretext of needing a pencil. Even before I shut my front door behind me, I remembered her errand, which I often repeat. I, too, need a pencil. Scotch tape. Tea bags. Paper. A new pair of shoes. But mostly what I need is the world and the chance, from inside the bubble of urban anonymity, to listen, watch, observe. I need to rub up against stories and think quiet thoughts. To let ideas rise up while my body moves through three-dimensional scenes—the kind you don’t need special glasses to see.
Patti Smith once left her parents’ house in New Jersey with a stolen copy of Rimbaud in her bag, and headed for New York. Knowing she needed to be there, she lived on the streets, slept in Central Park, went hungry, and then one day by accident, ran into another kid her age whose name was Robert Mapplethorpe. And the two of them—just kids—with no way of seeing who they would both become, devoted themselves to the only things that mattered: one another, and art.
I read Just Kids on the bus. And I read it in front of a sun-drenched café. And it moved me. Here was Patti Smith at 20, just after she and Robert moved into the loft of a man who had recently died, a friend they called The Pigman: “Robert let me have the record player and I listened to Piaf and wrote.” Or: “I set the typewriter on an orange crate. The floor was littered with pages of onionskin filled with half-written songs, meditations on the death of Mayakovsky, and ruminations about Bob Dylan.”
In Patti Smith’s world of young creation, Piaf and Dylan, Homer and Maykovsky, Gregory Corso and Nietzsche are all contemporaries. They each inspire and teach her. They all shape the poet and performer we now recognize as great, a cultural gift.
She recalls dozens of extraordinary moments and encounters: seeing the Velvet Underground for the first time live, sitting on the floor of Janis Joplin’s room at the Chelsea Hotel while Kris Kristofferson sings “Me and Bobby McGee.” Meeting Todd Rundgren and finding that they are “oddly similar—sober, work-driven, judgmental, idiosyncratic wallflowers.”
Yet in recounting her meetings with all those iconic 60s figures, Patti Smith isn’t dropping names. There’s no pathos, no posing, no smug “I was there”—just a quiet, impassioned absorption of influence and atmosphere. Hearing Lou Reed, she recognizes the “strong poetry” of his lyrics—a quality that came to mark her own. Hearing Neil Young sing “Ohio,” she confirms her growing belief that the artist could be a “responsible social commentator.” She absorbed Corso into her poetry, as she did Blaise Cendrars and Mayakovsky: “Through them my work developed humor and a little swagger.”
Some of the book’s most delicious moments are small at the time, huge from the viewpoint of now: the first time Robert Mapplethorpe picks up a Polaroid camera. The first time Patti Smith reads her poems at an open mike. The day she makes the last payment on her first guitar.
And the thing is this: nowhere in Just Kids does the young Patti Smith hope for fame or a million bucks from sales. She designs no “platform” or “brand,” constructs no “niche,” thinks no marketing thoughts. She creates. And she faithfully loves Robert Mapplethorpe, even as he emerges into a sexual identity that changes their life together.
Here is Patti Smith, reflecting on their love for each other: “His drives toward men were consuming but I never felt loved any less….Robert and I still kept our vow. Neither would leave the other. I never saw him through the lens of his sexuality. My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life.”
I once left my house with Just Kids in my bag, and it returned me to the wellsprings of my own life. Instead of riding the bus back the way I’d come, I walked all the way home.
Tags: Blaise Cendrars, book review, Chelsea Hotel, Gregory Corso, Janis Joplin, Just Kids, Kris Kristofferson, monkey-mind, Patti Smith, Powell's City of Books, Robert Mapplethorpe, usfpool, Virginia Woolf