Patti Smith. What can I say? ‘Pissing in A River’ was my theme song in the mid 70s. I scrawled the song title in big black texta letters on the interior roof panel of my VW station wagon. The album ‘Horses’ had the same inspirational effect on me when I first heard it as Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ had when I was at high school in 1964. That is, I was, in the vernacular of the times, blown away. I still own my copy of Patti’s first single - ‘Piss Factory’/’Hey Joe’ - a rare item now, that she and Lenny Kaye made with Tom Verlaine and then, as Mer records, had it pressed in a limited edition of 1500 in Philadelphia in 1974.
I had read her poetry books, ‘Witt’, ‘Seventh Heaven’, ‘Ha Ha Houdini’ before I heard the music. I loved her books for their New York feel, for their look and style more than the actual poems. Patti Smith always tended towards the just-post-beat mystical and I was becoming interested then in a more hard-edged scepticism, and anyway, in Australia the mystical was for hippies in Nimbin communes. I had been fascinated, as many kids in their late teens/early twenties were, by the experimentation and seeming rebellion and freedom of the underground punk & poetry scene that followed on from the Beats in New York in the late 60s/early 70s.
Patti Smith, cover photo for Horses by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975
Just Kids is a memoir of Patti Smith’s early days with her lover and close friend Robert Mapplethorpe as they survive on part-time jobs in bookshops and hustle for dinner and rent and a room at the Chelsea as they gradually figure out how to become artists in New York City. Although she slips into occasional purple patches her generosity and openness here make this an honest and totally engaging memoir. It’s her gift to her soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe, the visual artist and photographer who died of AIDS at the age of 42 in 1989.
I know I am totally unobjective about Patti Smith. When I saw her perform at the Enmore Theatre in 1997 during her first visit to Sydney, her raw power was extraordinary - her work had definitely deepened and strengthened as she had aged. On that tour, she read poems to a small audience one Sunday morning at the Museum of Contemporary Art. No celebrity artifice, just the poet and the work - it was brilliant.
Here’s Edmund White’s review of Just Kids