Patti Smith: Just Kids
Patti Smith never interrogates the Almighty; rather, she treasures the gift, the man she calls “the most beautiful work of art,” and continues to dwell in the realm she entered as a prayerful child, and we are blessed to have her angelic intelligence among us.
Fulfilling a promise she made to her lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, to write the story of their life, Patti Smith has published her first book of prose, Just Kids, a heartbreaking tale of love and art. If only it were possible to make of those two words a compound the way the Germans do – so inextricably and intimately fused are they here, as Smith and Mapplethorpe were, and continue to be. Though the love story morphs into elegy (Mapplethorpe died in 1989), it is ongoing. What more could anyone ask?
Born in Chicago, transplanted to New Jersey, Patti Smith was a tomboy with a real spiritual side, someone who “swiftly accepted the notion of God,” intuiting both presence and possibility. She believed that prayer gave her “entrance into the radiance of imagination,” her destination of choice. Discovering a copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations in a bookstall across from the Philadelphia bus depot was an epiphany. His verse ignited her imagination and confirmed her vocation; as she says, “It was for him that I wrote and dreamed.” If it can be said that figures at a rather far remove from traditional sanctity are saints, then Rimbaud is a great figure in the calendar of saints that is Just Kids –– equal to, never replaced by Robert Mapplethorpe: the “archangel” and angel somehow fused into a greater spiritual and aesthetic reality.
Just Kids follows the portrait–of–the–artist plot line. Soon enough, after dropping out of college and finding no place in New Jersey for a girl with her poetic longings, Patti embarks on her pilgrimage, by bus to New York City, after making a vow to the child she gave up and to Joan of Arc that she would make something of herself. Alone and nearly destitute, with no place to stay, she meets a handsome green–eyed boy (“a sleepy youth cloaked in light,” she calls him) and they hook up. His unflinching dedication to art reinforces hers; his energies accelerate hers; his vision ignites hers. Working side by side, she on drawings and poems, he on collages and altars, they become two parts of one person; and the sexual reinforces that, at least for a time. So close was their aesthetic kinship that he once told her, “Nothing is finished until you see it.” From him she acquired the central tenet of her artistic credo: “. . .by his example, I understand that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God being a poem, the weave of color and graphite scratched upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution.”
Patti and Robert lived a hardscrabble existence shifting from one place to another in a kind of la vie de boheme translated to the New York City of the late 1960s. They were so poor they sometimes went without food or bought day–old doughnuts or made lettuce soup. Aesthetic sustenance was not so scarce, but it had to be rationed. Museum visits followed a pattern: one bought a ticket, went in, then came out and told the other about the exhibition. On one occasion, Mapplethorpe had a prescient vision: “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours,” he told her. No matter the financial situation, they worked feverishly on projects. And the seamless nature of the spiritual and aesthetic endured all hardship, Patti noting that, ”we were both praying for Robert’s soul, he to sell it, I to save it.”
Their days of staying in lice and cockroach infested quarters ended when they found a room –– the smallest room in the place –– at the legendary Chelsea Hotel. Their time at the Chelsea would be important, both in terms of their relationship and their art. Robert’s dawning discovery of his sexual preference for men would eventually all but end their physical intimacy; but despite his descent into a world of hustling and rough sex, the spiritual bond between the two would never be severed. Ironically, perhaps paradoxically, it would be strengthened. It is almost as if the sexual had to be burned away to reveal a deeper radiance.
Life at “this eccentric and damned hotel” became a kind of purgatorial experience, for it provided the opportunity for each to emerge into the fullness of aesthetic identity – but not without considerable pain. The denizens of this place, once home to Bob Dylan, Thomas Wolfe, and Dylan Thomas, were an extraordinary crew, including one George Kleinsinger, composer of music for “Tubby the Tuba,” who kept a collection of exotic animals including a 12–foot python in his room. Patti’s path crossed those of Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg; their influence on her was so important that she referred to the hotel as her “new university.” (The story of her first meeting with Ginsberg is amusing: he supplied her with sufficient change to buy a sandwich at an automat, only belating realizing that she was a girl: “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy,” he told her.)
A combination of circumstances, including Robert’s deepening involvement with hustling, results in Patti and Robert going their separate ways in October, 1972. Patti becomes more and more involved in the music world, has a relationship with the playwright Sam Shepard, and participates in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s. Robert, “a stoic darkness surrounding him,” edges into the world of photographing sadomasochistic homosexual activity. That was too much for Patti who writes that “his pursuits were too hardcore for me.” Yet near the end of their time in this place, which reminded her of “a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone,” Patti came to a stunning realization: “I knew one day I would stop and he would keep going, but until then nothing could tear us apart.” Her career would take off, rapidly, far in advance of his: after her poetry reading, she was bombarded with offers.