Living

Patti Smith creates a chronicle of art, love and loss

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith; ECCO/HarperCollins (304 pages; $27)

Patti Smith was 20 years old when she landed in New York City, an aspiring artist, naive and uncertain of her direction but willing to embrace whatever experience came her way. Pregnant at 16, she had given up the child for adoption. Now she was under the influence of the French surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud, a muse to dreamers everywhere, and had an accurate sense of being an outsider in a world that seemed in the midst of great change.

It was the Summer of Love, 1967.

One of the first like-minded wandering souls she met was another aspiring artist, Robert Mapplethorpe. He wore a sheepskin vest, blue jeans and beads, and, after they moved in together, they'd spend hours drawing, painting, talking and listening to music. They lived hand to mouth, though by the time she landed a job at the famous Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue, they could afford to move from relative squalor to the Chelsea Hotel, a teeming Bohemian hub in lower Manhattan.

Her life intersected with those of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom she would soon mourn. She and Robert made their way into the circle of actors, acolytes and fashion hopefuls who surrounded the artist rebel Andy Warhol.

Though Robert eventually followed his inclinations out of the homosexual closet - he supplemented their income by turning tricks in Times Square - he and Patti remained the closest of friends. His mother thought they were married, and much later, when Patti moved to Detroit to live with her musician husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, she suggested to Robert it was time he told his mother they had divorced.

But back in that cauldron of art and impulse, she had a fling with the playwright Sam Shepard. They wrote a play together about desire and infidelity, whose brief performance run came to an end when he opted to return to his wife and family. She hung out with the poet Jim Carroll and was encouraged to write by the Beat likes of Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. She bought a little Martin guitar on layaway.

By the time you come to the end of the core story of Smith's guileless and magnetic new memoir, "Just Kids," it's 1975 and she has just recorded the album "Horses," which would announce her emergence as a punk-rocking songwriter and performer. Mapplethorpe shot the cover portrait, she looking fearless in white shirt with the cuffs cut off, suspenders and a jacket flung over her shoulder.

Sure it smells like teen spirit - and, as a rocking icon now past 60, Smith maintains her hold on that spirit. But that is the point, as emphasized by Smith's title.

This is a portrait of the artists as young lovers and truthseekers.

It's not only a straightforward and enlightening account of that gauzy, scorching period of recent American culture. There's a sadness, too, and a sense of loss. Smith bookends her tale with the memory of receiving the news of Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS, in 1989, at the end of the decade when the scourge erupted onto the landscape. A television was on and someone was singing "Vissi d'arte," from "Tosca": "I have lived for love, I have lived for Art."

G-L-O-R-I...Glory be: I liked this book a lot.

  Comments