Just Kids

By Patti Smith

Ecco. 304 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


There's a passage in

Just Kids

, Patti Smith's tender coming-of-age memoir of her love affair and enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in which the aspiring rock-and-roll poetess sits in on the recording of the Band's album

Stage Fright

in 1970, in Woodstock, N.Y., with Todd Rundgren as the studio engineer.

"Mostly everyone drifted off to some hard-core partying," Smith writes. "I sat up and talked with Todd until dawn, and we found that we both had Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, roots. My grandparents had lived close to where he was born and raised. We were also oddly similar - sober, work-driven, judgmental, idiosyncratic wallflowers."

All those self-aware descriptors are precisely dead-on and borne out throughout Just Kids. The book is an utterly charming, captivating, intimate portrait of a late 1960s and early 1970s period of intense artistic ferment in downtown Manhattan significantly shaped and keenly observed by rock firebrand Smith, who was born in Chicago and raised in South Jersey before boarding a bus to find her future in New York.

It's a wonderful book that, in many ways, recalls Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1. Like Dylan's 2004 memoir, Just Kids presents a poet-rocker recounting the salad days in a clear, commanding prose voice that's recognizably her own, but not quite so mysterious and mystical as the one heard in the music.

That's fitting, since Dylan looms large in Smith's narrative. She describes how she and her friend Janet Hamill waited in line at Sam Goody's in Philadelphia to buy Blonde on Blonde (and searched for a scarf to match the one their hero wore on the album cover). And how, a decade later, the Bard himself walked into one of her early gigs after her artistic peregrinations finally found her fronting a rock-and-roll band at CBGB's.

The artist's life

Dylan is one of many demigods that populate the universe of Smith and Mapplethorpe, a pair of confidants and ambitious soulmates born weeks apart in 1946. They meet shortly after a penniless Smith arrives in New York, and live the artist's life together, first in Brooklyn and later at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.

Smith and Mapplethorpe remain intensely loyal to each other even after the photographer, who would later inflame conservatives such as North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms with his sexually explicit sadomasochistic imagery, comes to realize that he's gay.

As they encourage one another - she urges him to focus on photography, he nags her to speak her poems out loud - the frequently flat-broke bohemians remain sure of their artistic vision.

"Nobody sees like us, Patti," Mapplethorpe says. And when they live at the Chelsea, they mingle with a fairly impressive coterie of artists and musicians. At one time or another, that includes Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (who tries to pick her up, thinking she's a boy), playwright Sam Shepard (with whom Smith has an affair) and legendary folklorist Harry Smith (no relation).

Throughout, Smith is funny and compassionate, uncompromising in her artistic principles and grounded by her working-class roots. Early on, she reveals that in the days she worked in a bookbinding factory in Philadelphia, immortalized in "Piss Factory," she became pregnant as a teenager and gave the baby away.

Sinatra and Rimbaud

Later, in New York, she's the arty chick who doesn't smoke pot and is as much a fan of Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra (whom she mimicked in Mapplethorpe's famous cover shot for her first album,

Horses

) as she is of Jim Morrison and Arthur Rimbaud.

To find her voice, she "listened to Oscar Brown Jr. and recordings of beat poets, and studied lyric poets like Vachel Lindsay and Art Carney." She hangs out with Jim Carroll and Johnny Winter, listens to Lotte Lenya, and dances the "Bristol Stomp."

Not finding poetry to be "physical enough" on the page, she vows to "infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock- and-roll."

That leads Smith to achieve a measure of mainstream success - she scored a hit with a reworked cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" in 1978. With a touch of envy, Mapplethorpe says, "You got famous before me," confident that his ship would soon come in.

It did, as he would become celebrated - and, in some eyes, infamous - in the years before he died of AIDS in 1989. She believed in him completely, in the beginning and the end. When his early work is rejected, she compares him to "a young Jean Genet, showing his work to Cocteau and Gide. They knew he was great, but they feared the intensity of his gift, and also what his subject matter might reveal about themselves.

"Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. . . . He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism."

The book takes its title from a remark a woman made upon seeing Smith and Mapplethorpe together in Central Park in the 1960s. "Are they artists?" she asked her husband. "No, they're just kids," he replied.

In Just Kids, Smith and Mapplethorpe are just that. Smith does skip ahead to record her experiences with Mapplethorpe as he neared death, but she leaves out her years of rock-star successes.

Instead, she's concerned with the process of becoming, and Just Kids is a sweet story of two luminously talented outsiders awkwardly finding their way, together.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ inthemix.