For some reason, since they both released about the same time, I was expecting more connection between Sam Shepard’s Day Out Of Days and Patti Smith’s Just Kids. They really could not be more different. Shepard’s collection of snippets, vignettes, sketches, conversations and short stories reads like a summing up, a veiled auto-biography of playwright and actor, a revisit perhaps to familiar territory, the landscape of Shephard’s life.
Patti Smith’s book is an ode to Robert Mapplethorpe and their times. Much to my surprise, Shepard rates only a handful of pages, though respectful and appreciative. Smith was Mapplethorpe’s lover and muse. And he was hers. It’s a fascinating study of their relationship, supportive and loving as it was. But of course, ultimately tragic as well. Smith is at her best when she writes of her struggles to accept Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, even as he came to terms with it himself. The dynamic of his sexuality drove his art into new territory. And Mapplethorpe constantly prodded Smith to be the poet, be the rock star – which she eventually became. Smith’s portrait of Mapplethorpe is sensitive, frank and unadorned.
Odd thing for a poet though, sometimes Smith’s prose is stilted, sometimes florid. And while the book has an overwhelminjg sense that Patti Smith is an unknown walking amongst her peers, I’m tempted to say that there’s a bit of name dropping going on here. Yet that’s probably unfair. After all, this was a time and place that drew the artists, the poets, the rock stars. Patti Smith was legitimately past of that orbit.
She tells us how she met all these now recognizable artists. Her bumping in to Allen Ginsberg in an automat is a funny one. He was trying to pick her up. He thought she was a “very pretty boy”. She and Robert had a room at the Chelsea Hotel, and met many of the famous up and coming icons of the day there: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Dylan, less familiar artists and rockers. Warhol and The Factory. Candy Darkling and Holly Woodlawn, of whom Warhol, said, they were “pioneers without a frontier.”
In the early days it was a real financial struggle, Patti supported Robert for a long time with days jobs, mostly working in record stores or bookshops. Freelancing with rock reviews for Crawdaddy, Circus, and Rolling Stone. She was quite a ‘book hunter’ apparently – picking up books on the cheap and selling them for several times what she had paid for them. Put food on the table.
Smith met Sam Shepard when he was the drummer for The Holy Modal Rounders, and he introduced himself as Slim Shadow. Shepard was already an accomplished playwright by this time – and married as well. But they eventually both shared a room at The Chelsea. There they wrote together (and Patti briefly acted in), Cowboy Mouth. They both moved on.
The period was also not only full of artists whose paths crossed, but their deaths as well: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. The events of the period get mention too: Altamont, the Manson murders, Patty Hearst and the SLA. All in all the book evokes a time which was a bridge era in the social and cultural life of America, if in a workmanlike fashion.
The book contains several Mapplethorpe photographs as well, mostly of Smith – sometimes with Mapplethorpe and sometimes without. Smith was Mapplethorpe’s first model and she apparently nudged him into photography, even as he nudged her into rock and roll, poetry and drawing. Just Kids is the story of two people who burned with creative impulses. One wonders: had they never met, would either of them have realized their potential? Patti Smith lives on, while Robert Mapplethorpe was an early victim of the scourge of AIDS.
If you grew up around this period of time, this is a fascinating read, though flawed as biography of a brief era.