Philadelphia is just a quick blitz up I-95 from Wilmington if the traffic’s not too bad, and if you drive down North Philly’s Newell Street you can probably still see the old GI housing project where punk poetess Patti Smith spent a few of her formative years, before relocating across the river to New Jersey.
It was in Philly, she said, that she learned how to dance and where she first saw “it” girl, Edie Sedgwick, at a Warhol Retrospective in the mid 1960s. By the end of the decade, though, she shed her small town roots and hit the Big Apple, drinking in all that magical city had to offer and aligning herself with the creme of the counter culture. It was there that she became.
Rail thin, hauntingly beautiful and extraordinarily talented, Smith is best known to us through her poetry, her music and her art. Captured on film, spread across countless magazine pages and pinned to the walls of galleries, her legacy is already cemented in contemporary culture where she has become an icon for our time.
With all that at our fingertips, there has been precious little prose to grab on to, just a bit here and there over the years. This has now changed with the long anticipated release of Just Kids, Smith’s memoir of her remarkable and enduring relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Her first book length prose offering, Just Kids is the story of two pretty young things crisscrossing their way through New York City during the late Sixties and Seventies. From Coney Island to the busted down theaters on Forty-Second Street; from the dirty glitter of Max’s Kansas City to Warhol’s own Factory the city is open to us through Smith’s eyes. Residing at the legendary Chelsea Hotel, Smith and Mapplethorpe fully immersed themselves in a larger than life world filled with high profile celebs, well known artists and the up and comers who were still very much on the fringe…of art, politics, music and sexuality.
Smith’s prose is striking, acerbic and thought provoking. How could it be anything else? This book, a history and eulogy and an offering is as lyrical as anything she has ever done. It’s a broad stroke that captures the very essence of what New York was during this illustrious heyday, but more importantly, Just Kids is an honest and intimate portrait of a man who would very quickly become one of America’s eminent photographers, told from a perspective that only memoir can offer.
The only downside, if there can even be one, is that the book is a little lean on photographs. Although there are a healthy handful scattered throughout the text, it’s not nearly enough to satisfy the craving. That one small pick aside, it’s a beautiful book sure to become an indispensable reference for Smith and Mapplethorpe fans alike.
On the cover of Smith’s groundbreaking album Horses, photographed by Mapplethorpe in 1975, the singer’s eyes pierce her compatriot’s lens and you can almost hear the lyrics to the album’s closing “Elegie.” “There must be something I can dream tonight/The air is filled with the moves of you.” She might have written those words for Jimi Hendrix but they are just as appropriate here.
Just Kids (Ecco, 2010) $27.00