By Elizabeth Hand
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; C04
By Patti Smith
Ecco. 279 pp. $27
"I want to be a poet," Arthur Rimbaud wrote in May 1871, at the age of 16, "and I'm working to make myself a visionary: you won't understand at all, and I can hardly explain it to you. . . . The sufferings are enormous, but you have to be strong, to be born a poet, and I've realized I'm a poet."
Almost exactly 100 years later in New York City, Patti Smith stood in front of an audience at St. Mark's Church as part of the Poetry Project and chanted the opening lines of "Oath": "Christ died for somebody's sins/But not mine." The audience included poets Anne Waldman and John Giorno; Warhol Factory luminaries like Lou Reed, Gerard Malanga and Warhol himself, as well as members of the music intelligentsia such as Lillian Roxon, Todd Rundgren and Harry Smith. Rock-and-roll critic-cum-guitarist Lenny Kaye provided musical accompaniment, the first time the church's rafters echoed to an electric guitar. After that night, Smith was a star, "bombarded with offers" from magazines, publishers, a record company.
"It came, I felt, too easy," she observes in "Just Kids," her beautifully written new memoir, a haunted elegy for both her soul mate Robert Mapplethorpe and a lost New York City. In fact, fame didn't come easily at all, but only after a young lifetime's immersion in "the radiance of imagination," a childhood fueled by books and Sunday school, poetry and prayer and pop music.
When she was a very young girl, the sight of a swan produced a transcendent moment of being: "The swan became one with the sky . . . and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds." This hallucinatory clarity stayed with Smith, a precocious reader punished by her teachers for daydreaming, but encouraged by her working-class parents with art books and supplies.
As a teenager, she worked in a toy factory and slept on a cot in the laundry room of her parents' house in South Jersey. A brief stint at Glassboro State Teachers College ended with her expulsion when she got pregnant. She gave up her infant for adoption and a few months later, in the summer of 1967, boarded a bus to New York City with some drawing pencils, a notebook, $32 she pinched from a purse left in a phone booth and a copy of "Illuminations" by Rimbaud, her "archangel" and spiritual mentor. "It was for him that I wrote and dreamed. . . . His hands had chiseled a manual of heaven and I held them fast."
In the city, she found that the Brooklyn friends she'd intended to stay with had moved, but another angel awaited her: a beautiful, half-naked sleeping boy who opened his eyes and smiled at her. The beautiful boy was Robert Mapplethorpe. In a modern reversal of the myth of Eros and Psyche, he didn't flee but escorted her to another brownstone before disappearing. Later that summer, they unexpectedly met again at Brentano's and began a creative and -- there's no other way to describe it -- mystical relationship that continued until Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS in 1989.
"The way that I see him is the way I see myself," Smith sang in "We Three," a song about the musician Tom Verlaine; but the words more truly apply to Mapplethorpe. "Just Kids" concerns the early years of their passionate friendship, a time that coincided with the beginning of the end of Manhattan's last great bohemian age, when a couple with dreams of beatnik glory could live on day-old bread and cigarettes and paint fumes, all of which Smith evokes so precisely that one can smell the Nescafé boiling on a hot plate. This is romantic poverty of a high order, with "Blonde on Blonde" and "Madame Butterfly" spinning on the turntable, and the ghost of Jean Genet absolving the soul mates of the occasional light-fingered escapade (including Mapplethorpe's theft of an original print by William Blake) as they forge their own artistic identities, working side by side on drawings, paintings, collages, poems. There are cameos and recurring walk-ons by Allen Ginsberg, Harry Smith, Gregory Corso, and a burgeoning friendship between Smith and William Burroughs. The couple's tenancy at the Chelsea Hotel produced tableaux such as this, when Smith waltzes into the bar next door:
"At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on."
More than a 1970s bohemian rhapsody, "Just Kids" is one of the best books ever written on becoming an artist -- not the race for online celebrity and corporate sponsorship that often passes for artistic success these days, but the far more powerful, often difficult journey toward the ecstatic experience of capturing radiance of imagination on a page or stage or photographic paper. Mapplethorpe's iconic image of Smith for the cover of "Horses," her landmark 1975 album, serves as a convenient symbol of both their collaborative relationship and the separate paths they took thereafter: he as one of the last century's most heralded and controversial photographers, she as a performer whose influence still extends through poetry, contemporary music, fashion and the visual arts. (It's a testament to her appeal that as I read this book over Christmas, my teenage daughter, middle-aged brother and septuagenarian mother all clamored to have it next.)
"Just Kids" begins and ends with the phone call that tells her of the death of the "sleeping youth cloaked in light," the man who shared her transit from obscurity to stardom, without sacrificing their vision along the way. Her own work, however, continues. Jesus may have died for somebody's sins, but Patti Smith lives and writes and sings for all of us.
Hand's ninth novel, "Illyria," will be published this spring.