Just Kids – Book Review by Gina Myers

patti smith just kids Just Kids   Book Review by Gina Myers

Patti Smith - Just Kids

In a recent New York Observer article, Patti Smith is credited as suggesting New York City is no longer the place for young artists looking to make it. She says, “New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling…New York City has been taken away from you.” And for those of us who’ve been there or are there now, we know the cost of living and the high rent is not very welcoming for young artists who are not already independently wealthy or who are not willing to toil away at some full time job with the hope of having free time and energy to devote to their chosen art.

The New York City of Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids stands in sharp contrast to her appraisal of the city today. The focus of the memoir is on Smith’s friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two met by chance in the summer of 1967 and quickly became inseparable, making a vow to always be there for each other until they could stand on their own. The title comes from a lovely anecdote where in Washington Square Park a woman told her husband in reference to Smith and Mapplethorpe, “Take their picture. I think they’re artists,” and he responded, “Oh go on. They’re just kids.” At the time, the husband was right—they were just kids, but kids who were on the path to becoming famous artists.

The New York they experience is one where artists could live (though sometimes go hungry) on very little money, one where the Lower East Side was still a dangerous place, and one where you could trade artwork for a room at the Chelsea Hotel. It’s in this New York that everyone seems to be somebody, and Smith and Mapplethorpe make friends with the various writers, musicians, and artists who surround them. Allen Ginsburg mistakes Smith for a man and buys her a coffee and a sandwich; Jim Carroll hustles alongside Mapplethorpe, though Carroll hustles for drugs and Mapplethorpe for rent money; Smith and Mapplethorpe make their way into Andy Warhol’s Factory scene through the backroom of Max’s Kansas City; Smith is introduced to Janis Joplin, talks outside of Electric Lady studio with Jimi Hendrix, and runs into Sam Shepard on the street after only knowing him as “Slim,” drummer for The Holy Modal Rounders. The encounters with famous or soon-to-be famous are numerous, though in no way is Smith name-dropping or showing off. This is simply what New York was like; this was her life.