Patti Smith, Just Kids/ Pe cand eram doar niste pusti
Published 2010 by Bloomsbury, 296p
Chelsea Hotel was a favourite place of artists in New York in the 60s and 70s, it was the epicenter of bohemian life, the place where you had little comfort but you could meet Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg or Andy Warhol. Mark Twain, Arthur Miller and Frieda Kahlo used to stay there as well. When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved in the hotel, she felt she had found the mandala of her life:
The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. In wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive… I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumors of Oscar Wilde’s trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Thomas Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can’t Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on our floor, and a speedie Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire gluing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight. So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.
They were young, a beautiful couple of dreamers but having ambition and determination to succeed in their artistic career. Both poor and with no moral or financial support, Patti and Robert had only themselves.
Patti was born in 1946 in Chicago and a few years later moved with her family to New Jersey. She had always had an elaborated imagination and loved words. Her mother had thought her to pray but soon her love of prayer was shadowed by her love for books. Her first visit to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia electrified her and Patti knew that an artist could see what others could not. A painting by Picasso took her breath away.
I longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their process and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frieda to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.
Determined to follow her dream, just after an unwanted pregnancy, Patti left home and went to New York.
The city was a real city. Shifty and sexual.
No money in her pocket, no friends, no shelter, she wandered a few days through the city until she managed to find a job in a bookstore. She met Robert and soon moved together. He was her age, a beautiful, skinny boy that wanted to become an artist too. They did everything together and one was the support and inspiration for the other. Robert wanted to be Andy Warhol.
Robert’s early work was clearly drawn from his experiences with LSD. His drawings and small constructions had the dated charm of the Surrealists and the geometric purity of Tantric art. Slowly his work took a turn toward the Catholic: the lamb, the Virgin, and the Christ.
But he was more anxious about money; Robert wanted to become part of the high society. They broke up and he began to experience homosexuality and prostitution. After a few months they went back together but it was clear they were about to take different ways. They kept their devotion and friendship but Patti could not understand Robert using sexuality as his way to success. She wanted her work to matter.
He seemed to be moving deeper into the sexual underworld that was portraying in his art.
Then he discovered photography and used sexuality to shock the audience. He wanted to produce something that no one else had done before.
He was no longer using magazines images, just models and himself to produce visuals of self-inflected pain. I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality. It was hard for me to match it with the boy I had met.
While Robert involved in a relationship with Samuel Jones Wagstaff Jr, collector and former curator of the Detroit Institute, a relation that would last fifteen years, until Sam’s death, Patti followed her artistic way, writing poems, drawing and buying a guitar and learning a few chords from a Bob Dylan songbook. Then she made the transition from poet and song writer to musician, formed a band and shortly became a star. Her first album, Horses, was produced in Jimi Hendrix’s studio and was a tribute to rock and roll, revolutionary spirits and all artists that had influenced her.
Jimi Hendrix never came back to create his new musical language, but he left behind a studio that resonated all his hopes for the future of our cultural voice. These things were in my mind from the first moment I entered the vocal booth. The gratitude I had for rock and roll as it pulled me through a difficult adolescence. The joy I experienced when I danced. The moral power I gleaned in taking responsibility for one’s actions.
In 1979 Patti married Fred Sonic Smith and moved to New York. Robert succeeded as a photographer although he was controversial. His exhibitions included still-life images of flowers, nudes, portraits of famous people, self-portraits and BDSM scenes. He died in 1989 of AIDS. Patti was there for his last days suffering and recalling their youth together.
Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?
Just Kids is a book about formation, about love and friendship but what really makes the magic of the story is the faith of the story teller. It’s almost like in a fairy tale. Patti always wanted to become an artist and she has never given up hope. The compromises that were made did not influence the value of her art.