Patti Smith: Just Kids

Patti Smith “Horses” (1996) album cover.

And so they part –– each following a different trajectory –– but never completely severed. Patti records her deep anxiety about Robert: “His dual nature troubled me, mostly because I feared it troubled him. When we first me, his work reflected a belief in God as universal love. Somehow he got off track. His Catholic preoccupation with good and evil reasserted itself, as if he had to choose one over the other. He had broken from the Church, now it was breaking within him. His [drug] trip magnified his fear that he had aligned himself irrevocably with darker forces, his Faustian pact.” They meet infrequently. On one occasion, they come together again so that he can photograph her for the cover of her first album, Horses; anyone who has heard of Patti Smith knows that iconic photo: Patti in black pegged pants, starched white blouse with cuffs cut off, black jacket slung over one shoulder, looking straight on and out. The power of the image is astonishing, even to Smith, who muses, “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”

Patti’s life came to involve a husband, children, a move to Detroit, and a flourishing career as a performer. Robert’s brought fame as a photographer and a long–term relationship with Sam Wagstaff, a wealthy collector who became Mapplethorpe’s patron and lover. No matter where she goes, Patti feels Robert’s abiding presence: “When I walk on the stages of the world without him I would close my eyes and picture him taking off his leather jacket, entering with me the land of a thousand dances.”

Just Kids is a book very much about music, whether that of Patti Smith Group, or that of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison or the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. –– New, edgy, subversive stuff. It may be a surprise to suggest that another voice, one from an early 20th century operatic melodrama, soars above that raucous chorus, but it does. Just Kids opens and nearly closes with the same moving vignette. On a cold March morning in 1989, Patti makes her way downstairs. She knows that Robert had died. From a television set left on all night, tuned to an arts channel, comes the sound of Puccini’s Tosca. The dreaded phone call comes and she makes her way to a chair. Tosca sings her great aria, “vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (“I have lived for art, I have lived for love”), after learning of her lover’s death. The dedication, the anguish are Patti’s as well. Yet, unlike Tosca with her plaintive refrain (“perche, perche, Signore, ah perche me rimuneri cosi –– ‘Why, why, Lord, why do you repay me thus”), 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.

Just Kids is many things –– a cultural chronicle of the rock ‘n roll world of New York City in the late 60s and early 70s; a portrait of the artist –– as young woman, as young man; a series of exquisite illuminations; a handbook of saints; a heartbreaking love story. Most of all, perhaps, it is the spiritual autobiography of a cultural icon whose journey is far from over. TC mark

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