“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

categories: Reading Under the Influence


Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

As she gained prominence in the mid and late seventies, Patti Smith was on my radar, but only barely.  I was graduated from college in 1976, and my tastes and enthusiasms were largely in place.  Plus, I was a musician, which took a certain amount of knowing where you were coming from.  Not a musician who was going anyplace, but.  I moved to SoHo in 1979 and spent a little time at CBGB’s, often going to see friends perform, even getting onstage myself a couple of times, but I found the whole punk scene kind of sloppy and overly anarchic, also androgynous, though sloppy and anarchic and androgynous was what a lot of rock had always been about.  But not like the punk scene.  I’d adopted the long-hair hippie style and valued a studied musicianship.  One band I saw did a great thing one night where one by one they handed off their instruments to people in the crowd, people who couldn’t play a note.  The hard-driving song held together for a few seconds even after the drummer departed, amazing, then just came apart into noise, then back to the song gradually as one-by-one the band members came back and reclaimed their instruments.  I loved the experiment, but I guess I was just one of those organisms that resists entropy.

Plus there was puke in the men’s room and a girl lying in it, no one helping her.  My strong thought was that you would help her.  For my trouble I got punched in the face by someone I didn’t see and scratched wildly by her.

Another night a couple of young women in black on black and heavy makeup, friends of friends, squirmed upon me in the writhing crowd in front of a band called Smut, but later in my bed rejected my stage-three sexual advances (they came as a package): they just wanted lodging, really, one on either side of me, still squirmy, telling me that just a few years before, they would have found my type irresistible.  My type!  Freckly blond kid, shampoo and conditioner.  If I’d let them hack my hair and dress me (they lived in our loft for several weeks), I could have gotten over.  Though I came to like them both very much (they were smart and unbelievably funny, and in the end successful designers) I thought them victims of a fad, didn’t realize that the four or five years between us marked a generational line.

Patti Smith is older than I, but not her music, is what I’m trying to say.  Reading Just Kids, a really good book, I had a heavy sense of regret: I’d misunderstood everything about what was going on at CBGB’s, never listened closely to a Patti Smith album if at all, couldn’t hear what was going on in the heads of those young women in my bed, never quite caught on.  And I was threatened by anything at all androgynous or outright gay.  I wanted to be a rebel and was in many ways, but I couldn’t shake a certain bourgeois sense of order and divisions.  And look what I missed out on–living in the heart of a movement and never seeing it, misreading poetry as depression.  Maybe projecting my own depression.  A judgmental young man misjudging.  But I made a lot of other mistakes, too.  I wasn’t thirty yet.  And being an artist at that age (or really any age) is all about making mistakes.

The book is really good because it focuses sharply on Robert Mapplethorpe, who before he was an icon of art and of the universal coming-out was Patti Smith’s boyfriend and friend and partner in artistic development.  It’s a love story and a coming-of-age story and it’s an affecting elegy, as well, bittersweet, poetic, funny, maybe sometimes a little curt and even sententious (especially, oddly, when she’s speaking of her music).

And  the book is full of Mapplethorpe images.  And it’s full of cameos by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Allen Ginsberg, on and on.  (How did I accept those guys so wholly and not the movements that spun forward from them?)(Don’t worry, I have since.)  Finally, Just Kids is a work of history.

Apparently there’s a sequel coming, which I bet will be about the music in more direct ways, and will be welcome as I continue to struggle with the forces that formed me as a young man, one who came into the sixties a little too young, entered the seventies a little too old.

  1. Sonya Huber writes:

    I was shocked by the beauty of this book, as somebody who caught the other end of punk as a high schooler (in the Midwest, which might not count 🙂 ) But I found so many cultural references suddenly clarified and brought together. I thought the book was beautifully written, and she had a really tough job: to not come across as a name-dropper. She did beautiful perspective of herself at the time. I found it so sweet and genuine, just loved it.

    • Bill writes:

      Yes, unexpectedly sweet. I think that’s because of the love story. The music stuff was more of a catalog, though fascinating…

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Just got the book myself. She’s an interesting artist to me, as interesting or more so than him, and I love her album of covers, Twelve. I’ve read some of her poems in the New Yorker and they are beautifully strange. I’m glad the book is good, considering I bought it!

    Recently I watched the Woodstock documentary. Something was happening/did happen in that era that was crystallized in that place. I’m kind of glad I was too young to be there, because I wouldn’t have gone and would have regretted it worse, or would have gone and really fucked it up, insecure as I was.

    • Bill writes:

      I’m going to do a whole Patti Smith listen thing, maybe starting with “Twelve” and working backwards.

  3. Vince P writes:

    Oh PS:
    In my early 50s, I came to like the Clash and the Ramones. The latter, I realized, were like the Beach Boys — except brought to Queens and tortured with sandpaper.

    • Bill writes:

      I played here in Maine last fall with a great young band that kept me out till like four in the morning. The lead singer was Jonboy Nemo, not yet 30. At a rehearsal after running songs past me for an hour he said, “Are you one of those guys who missed the 80s?” Yup.

  4. Vince P writes:

    I felt the same way about punk, most of it; mainly it didn’t sound good. But I always liked Patti Smith; and the New York Dolls. Sitting with my grandmother one day in 1974 or so, watching the Mike Douglas show, astoundingly, I was introduced to the New York Dolls. Mike Douglas didn’t know what to make of them; nor did the audience. My grandmother was appalled. the guy who booked them probably got fired. I was intrigued.

    The book is very good. The thing to remember about that era, no matter the many mistakes: we were free. The whole country was, largely, free. You can see it on the faces when you go back and look at the films. Especially The Last Waltz. Watch those guys’ faces. You won’t see people looking like that on stage anymore. They were absolutely, definitively free. It’s an alien concept.

    I also just recently saw a DIck Cavett interview with Lance Loud. You must have LOVED him. I was stunned by that show (An American Family), and especially by Lance Loud, who I assumed was an idiot. Now, seeing the Cavett interview, I see he was actually quite intelligent. A subtle mind. Imagine.

    “Consuming things will never satisfy our longing for meaning.” — Jimmy Carter, July 1979.

    • Bill writes:

      NYRB just had a long piece on the history of reality TV and traces it back to the Louds, etc. But I never saw that show. Why are we less free now? Radical Corporatism? Or is it something else you mean?