Inspiring Older Readers
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I first heard Patti Smith’s music in 1976 when her first single, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe, was released. To be honest, I didn’t think too much of it as a cover but there was undeniably a sensibility, an attitude, that piqued my interest. But what really grabbed my attention was the B-side, an astonishing, visceral poem set to a piano accompaniment called Piss Factory. It documents the internal thoughts of a young woman working piece-rates in a factory and her burning, surging desire to escape in order to seek out something bigger, something more creative in New York:
“Sixteen and time to pay off
I got this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe
Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week
But it's a paycheck, Jack…..
… And I will get out of here--
You know the fiery potion is just about to come
In my nose is the taste of sugar
And I got nothin' to hide here save desire
And I'm gonna go, I'm gonna get out of here
I'm gonna get out of here, I'm gonna get on that train,
I'm gonna go on that train and go to New York City
I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train, go to New York City,
I'm gonna be so bad I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory
And I will travel light.
Oh, watch me now.”
Then along came the albums Horses and Radio Ethiopia and I was completely hooked. I really didn’t, at this point, know anything much about the New York art scene – outside Warhol, the Factory and The Velvet Underground I was largely uninitiated – and it was only later I found out about the relationship between Smith and the controversial photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe.
I did see Patti Smith perform twice in the late Seventies, along with her band which was led by the shamefully under-rated Lenny Kaye, and I’ve been a fan of her music and poetry ever since. So when the memoir of her early years in New York in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Just Kids, was released I was keen to get my hands on a copy and find out more about the environment and relationships that had created this powerful artist.
As often happens, the book has subsequently been on my ‘must buy’ list ever since – until a few weeks ago when I finally got around to buying a copy. Truthfully, I was shocked to find not just one or two years has slipped by since its publication but a stonking eight – how is that possible?
Anyway, my eagerness to read the book was re-fired and I settled down for what I was certain would be a treat. When the memoir was originally released it got some rave reviews and Edmund White writing in The Guardian emphasised that this wasn’t just a portrait of two artists struggling to establish themselves but also a portrait of the times:
“this book brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s – the danger and poverty, the artistic seriousness and optimism, the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past. “
The memoir starts and ends with the early death from Aids of Mapplethorpe and in between it charts Smith’s escape from her life in New Jersey after a pregnancy that produced a child she gives up for adoption, her arrival in New York, the forming of an obsessive relationship with the then unknown Mapplethorpe and their poverty stricken journey into fame and into different relationships (and in Mapplethorpe’s case, alternative sexual identities).
As Edmund White’s review suggests, along the way we get an extraordinary portrait of a New York artistic and music community and what it took to find success. Both Smith and Mapplethorpe are single-minded in pursuit of their artistic vision, taking day jobs only to fund a bare existence that would give them the space for the creative urge. At times Smith and Mapplethorpe are almost one symbiotic organism, protecting each other come what may and urging each other on towards their goals.
Smith remained, according to her account, more focussed on her artistic vision while Mapplethorpe found himself more seduced by fame and money and as their paths begin to diverge, the link between them stretches thinner and thinner but never quite breaks. The end of the book when she has to deal with Mapplethorpe’s death is, for me, the most affecting part of the narrative when, with her children and husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith she meets up with the photographer for one last portrait session. Whatever existed between the two artists was clearly indestructible whatever direction their respective lives led them.
The detail about this decade of life in bohemian New York that Smith packs into less than 300 pages is both impressive and a sort of weakness I think. Inevitably, some things get brushed over and remain lurking in the background demanding more attention or a least a bit more time under the spotlight: Smith’s religious legacy, for example, always seems to be hovering in the wings but we’re told very little about this. Her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses but this gets hardly any mention and their spiritual influence is never really analysed. There’s also too little here about Mapplethorpe’s discovery of his rather confused alternative sexuality – was he gay, was he bi-sexual or was he driven more by a need for BDSM? The influence of this emerging sexuality is talked about but only sketchily and Smith seems to absorb this shift in Mapplethorpe’s world view without really blinking. I wanted to know a lot more about her understanding of what was happening to the man who had become her twin.
Edmund White’s Guardian review also notes, as I did, the seeming ease with which she broke into the world of music:
“Her transition to musician seems, in this account, to have been disconcertingly easy. She bought a guitar and soon knew how to play it. She turned some of her poems into songs. She put together a band – and before long she was a megastar touring the world.”
Equally, Mapplethorpe also seems to leap to fame with seamless ease:
Suddenly, Robert was showing photos in galleries attended by "a perfect New York City mix of leather boys, drag queens, socialites, rock and roll kids and art collectors".
But I guess any author has to make these decisions about what goes in and what gets left out and in truth I’d much rather have a shorter rather than a longer book.
I do, however, have a confession to make. Whilst I did enjoy the book, I didn’t really warm to the Patti Smith I found in these pages – I can’t really articulate why but she was not quite the character I’d constructed in my mind from her words and music. I’m always nervous of reading the biographical backgrounds of musicians I love to listen to because they can never be the people their art suggests they might be and in Smith’s case that has been true for me.
In lots of ways I regret having read the book because it resets my image of Smith as an artist. But, fortunately the art is bigger than the person and I would suggest that if you really want to get to know the young Patti Smith, then listen to Piss Factory and you’ll know all you need to know about her as a person, a musician and a poet.