La bohème

Out of blue-collar New Jersey suburb, godmother of punk recalls life with Mapplethorpe and atop New York art scene

By Eugenia Williamson
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2010

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Imagine a world in which it’s possible to live in Manhattan on only a book clerk’s salary and the occasional freelance rock review. Imagine you could take the bus to a restaurant where you knew that, without fail, the stars of the art scene held court at night and that someday, given the right clothes and glances, you would be asked to join them in the back room. Imagine being able to sleep in the park, ogle the freaks at Coney Island, and meet Allen Ginsburg at the Automat.

“Just Kids,’’ the memoir of the singer and poet Patti Smith, is a heartbreakingly sweet recollection of just that sort of vanished Bohemian life. It’s also the story of her extraordinary youth with Robert Mapplethorpe, a friendship that would make each by turns patron and muse, lover and beloved, provider and ward. Their story begins with a charmed chance encounter and ends with Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in the mid-1980s.

The book also devotes a few chapters to Smith’s dour New Jersey upbringing, making her artistic success seem all the more transcendent. Any student of American counterculture will be familiar with Smith’s place in punk rock and Mapplethorpe’s groundbreaking photography.

Besides their prodigious artistic talents, the pair conquered the New York art scene thanks to vanguard gender-bending and epic skinniness. In the glorious, startlingly personal snapshots that augment Smith’s elegiac text, we see them as arty scarecrows crowned with cascades of tangled brown hair.

Their devotion would steer them through a love affair that ended with Mapplethorpe’s realization that he was gay, and a series of one-room apartments. Each took turns working so the other could make art. Mapplethorpe had confidence enough for both of them; Smith encouraged his photography before anyone else did. Each thought the other a beautiful genius until, eventually, the public thought so, too.

On the skinny front, Smith provides a disarming explanation of their diet. Share your donuts and order couscous instead of the steak, and you too can cut butter with your cheekbones. If this strategy for world domination seems too ordinary, fear not: Their pioneering androgyny was a stroke of rare genius.

Things start to happen for Smith when she cuts her hair like Keith Richards, a development she reports with unconcealed amazement: “[I] took up the scissors, machete-ing my way out of the folk era. . . . [Someone] asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. ‘You know, like Mick Jagger.’ I figured that must be cool.’’ Soon, she is allowed into back rooms and recognized as a poet by Bob Dylan’s manager. Smith had arrived.

As is evident from the glib naiveté of the above aside (and of countless others like it), Smith is eager to cast herself as callow. In the hands of a less talented writer, this would irritate those who do not wish to allow Baby Boomers yet more nostalgia for their lost innocence. For page after atmospheric page, the reader takes the hand of a 20-something with artistic leanings whose feelings are suitably florid. However, whenever the reader is tempted to cast a gimlet eye on Smith’s youthful pretension, the 64-year-old narrator chimes in with observations that alert us to the depth of her hindsight.

Though not always. A passage about the Chelsea Hotel matches the deep purple of the book’s cover: “So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.’’

The similarly overwrought story of Smith’s visit to Jim Morrison’s grave is almost embarrassing: “All around me the messages written in chalk were dissolving like tears in the rain. Streams formed beneath the charms, cigarettes, guitar picks. Petals of flowers left on the plot of earth above Jim Morrison floated like bits of Ophelia’s bouquet. ‘Ehh!’ [an old woman] cried . . . Answer me, Americaine! Why do you young people not honor your poets?’’

Happily, those mawkish passages jump out precisely because there are so few of them. At such times, it is helpful to recall that Smith’s musical zenith consisted of mystical song-poems about horses and Arthur Rimbaud; her riffs on the Lizard King can be forgiven. Further, without this self-mythologizing mindset, Smith would not be able to delight her readers with details of gifts given, meals eaten, or playful conversations spoken more than 40 years ago.

Engrossing as the details she reports are Smith’s glaring silences about culturally significant events. The official record states that the CBGB music club, during the years Smith and her band played there, was a fertile (if gritty) breeding ground of genuine avant-garde genius. During that sacred time, towering figures like Joey Ramone, Tom Verlaine and, yes, Patti Smith emerged from working-class suburbs to demolish the bourgie boomer ersatz bohemia with minimal chord structures and black drain pipes.

The above has served as rock dogma for 30 years, but Smith glosses over CBGB with three pages; her collaboration on “Because the Night’’ with Bruce Springsteen gets a few tiny paragraphs. Though frustrating, these cheeky omissions serve to make the memoir more artful and a purer testament to the centrality of her friendship with Mapplethorpe. In the end, Smith answers to no one. Just as she stands out as an artiste in a movement based on collectivism, her singular voice gleams among rock memoirs as a work of literature.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and critic living in Cambridge.

By Patti Smith
Ecco, 279 pp., illustrated, $27