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Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

July 17, 2011

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and the Album Cover

Mapplethorpe's famous album cover photo of Smith, and the two together.

Not much music lately for me, just drying out from adventures bold and brave and probably stupid. But it has a been a great time and moment to finish reading “Just Kids,” the memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe written by Patti Smith. This is an exceptional memoir, I loved it from beginning to end. In the mid-70s when I first heard Patti Smith, I was so taken aback that I incorporated a satirical imitation of her in my efforts at a comedy routine at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto when it was still in a church basement. Although I was trying to make fun of her howling, sexually wired vocal acrobatics as they sounded so weird to me I think I was probably just jealous of her talent. (I also did a similarly jealousy-inspired short line routine to the tune of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many songs must I write, before I make a million bucks….”)

Since then, Yuk Yuk’s has become a nation-wide chain of comedy clubs, I have grown up a little and Patti Smith has become an important voice of her generation not only as an amazing singer/poet, but also as a memoir writer. This book tells the story of her life in conjunction with that of her early lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, who became a famous photographer and who died of AIDS in 1989. The book is not just beautifully written, sincerely written, poetically written, but it paints a surprising and magnificently human portrait of both herself and Mapplethorpe. I bought the book on a whim as I bought up a few other rock ‘n roll biographies and memoirs – Dylan’s “Chronicles” and Keith Richards’ “Life” – and following my great experience reading Anthony Kiedis’s memoir. I loved the latter, loved the Dylan, have found the Richards so heavy going that I have ceased reading it, but will no doubt pick it up again as I have been encouraged by several friends to do so.

But this Patti Smith one was simply dazzling. Not only from a writerly point of view, but also in how it shows the development of the parallel careers of her and Mapplethorpe, how it shows the complexity of the relationship with this man who ended up discovering he was mainly into men, how she was often mistakenly taken for being into women and drugs but was actually a very down-to-earth and fairly straight girl. I love how both her career and that of Mapplethorpe are shown to have grown so organically and from no real preconceived vision of how things should be or what they really wanted to do in life, other than a general artistic leaning. And the book paints a superb picture of the era and the transition from the 1960s rock to the 1970s punk and new wave scene – CBGB’s and all that – that she traversed. I had no idea she had lived in the Chelsea Hotel and could count among her friends and mentors well before she became a rock star people like Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Janice Joplin, and what? Sam Shepard! (The latter a former lover.) Not to mention her time in the world of Max’s Kansas City on the Andy Warhol periphery.

Just Kids Patti Smith

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Extraordinarily well written, and honest and sincere, this story never drags. And it shows a life well lived, and changes entirely my early perception of Patti Smith. I didn’t have a clue. Funny enough, if you listen to her voice again after reading this and after not having listened to her sing for many years, you might be struck, as I was, by what a fabulous voice and singing talent she really was – and which aspect she barely touches on here.

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