Sheet Music: 'Just Kids'

Sheet music

Phases & Stages

Just Kids

by Patti Smith
HarperCollins, 304 pp., $27

Patti Smith's debut album, 1975's Horses, surely would have achieved its iconic status without the tuff cover photo, but you can bet it would have taken a lot longer. Legion are those who picked it up because they were drawn to Robert Mapplethorpe's cover photograph – a study in androgyny, vulnerability, homage, and swagger – only to have their heads turned around when they put needle to record. It's a testament to artistic collaboration, a usually fraught and loaded act Smith and Mapplethorpe perfected during their long, complicated relationship – starting as lovers in the late 1960s, becoming friends as Mapplethorpe's homosexuality emerged, then taking care of each other materially and artistically until his premature death in 1989.

"Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph," writes Smith in Just Kids, her memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, but that's a hedge; we're meant to see both artists' mutability, the equivalent artistry and easy passage between observing and constructing oneself to be observed. Just Kids requires buying into a few concepts that can now seem quaint, if not contrived: the transcendence of art and the sanctity of the artist, the idea that creation is hard work, the notion that ambition and bohemianism are not at mutual odds, and, probably, the existence of God.

Once you're on board, though, it's a beautiful ride. We follow Smith from South Jersey to Brooklyn, then the Chelsea Hotel and the Lower East Side, as she seeks, kills, and resurrects her idols, working in bookstores and shacking up with Sam Shepard and Allen Lanier, hanging out and dropping names (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol's retinue, and many more notables). There are mythologized and uncanny incidents, to be sure, but the incantatory strength of voice and detail wins us over. This is the storytelling Smith we hear less often in her songs and poetry than in improvised banter during her live performances, readings, and interviews: direct, linear, humble, hilarious.

The cumulative effect has the same epic thunder as her "Land" trilogy or her "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" mashup, both of which we learn were in part inspired by seeing Mapplethorpe in his element: leaning on a parking meter outside the Whitney Museum (they couldn't afford two tickets), screaming around the Village after midnight. When she paints a picture of the bohemian wonderland that was 1970s lower Manhattan, we're wistful. When we learn that at one point Smith cried so often that Mapplethorpe christened her "Soakie," we're amused. When she describes Mapplethorpe's literalized torment as he transforms from good Catholic boy to confrontational, fetish-seeking artist, we're both thrilled and saddened. And when she promises him, posthumously, that "art sings of God," we find it easy to believe her.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Patti Smith
A Drunken Poet's Dream
M Train
Poet leaves time and space

Jessi Cape, Dec. 11, 2015

DVDs
Patti Smith
Dream of Life (Record Review)

Audra Schroeder, Dec. 26, 2008

More Robert Mapplethorpe
After a Fashion
After a Fashion
Blow by blow details of Stephen's night out, including an up-to-the-minute sunglasses-acquired count. Do not miss it!

Stephen MacMillan Moser, Oct. 10, 2003

More Music Reviews
Faster Than Sound: SXSW Online Offered Lots to Look Forward To
SXSW Online Offered Lots to Look Forward To
Virtual festival forecasts incoming local debuts and tentative fall touring.

Rachel Rascoe, March 26, 2021

Faster Than Sound: Virtual ACL Music Fest Keeps Flags Flying
Virtual ACL Music Fest Keeps Flags Flying
Nostalgic livestream and rising Austin talent fundraise for the Austin Parks Foundation.

Rachel Rascoe, Oct. 16, 2020

More by Cindy Widner
Protect and Preserve
Protect and Preserve
Now that we've freaked out about Austin's unrelenting boom, can we figure out how to keep what's best about the city alive?

July 24, 2015

The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas
The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas
The Chronicle talks to Ann Armstrong of map project Austin's Atlas about the local preservation tool

July 24, 2015

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle