Patti Smith was a star from the get-go. Opening her fierce 1975 debut album, Horses, with the line "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine," she clearly meant business. It was the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down.
From the outset, Smith claims that she and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were soulmates fated to cross paths.
Merging surreal, sometimes incoherent, poetry with three-chord electric guitar and singing in a voice that was girlish in one instant, crazed, discordant and feral the next, Smith wasn't the first woman to rock, but she was the first to do it with such balls-out bravado. She wore suits instead of mini-dresses, brazenly stole from Van Morrison and Land of a Thousand Dances, made her most lust-fuelled songs sound like prayers and her religious songs orgasmic — all without apology.
That same brashness is there on the album's iconic cover, a black-and-white photo snapped by Smith's longtime friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe. The image is as unsettling and contradictory as the music contained within. Smith stands, in white dress shirt and black tie, staring down the lens. Is she man or woman? Sinner or saint? Poet or junkie? With her nonchalant posture and a black jacket slung across her shoulder, she looks like she doesn't give a damn, but the eyes say something different. She breaks the fourth wall, daring her audience to take her on.
Along with Horses, that confrontational image helped cement Smith's status as the "godmother of punk," a title she's maintained ever since. One of the deepest pleasures of reading Smith's exquisite new memoir, Just Kids, arrives in the scene where she describes how she and Mapplethorpe achieved that classic shot. A collaboration between a singer and a photographer on the brink of fame, it was also the culmination of their complicated relationship as lovers and friends. As Smith the memoirist explains, "When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us."
Just Kids is bracketed by scenes of Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS in 1989 and is clearly intended to be a tribute to the man whom Smith calls "the artist of my life." From the outset, Smith paints a portrait of their young selves as soulmates fated to cross paths. At the same time that she resolved to cast off teacher's college and dead-end factory jobs in southern New Jersey for her art, Mapplethorpe had an artistic epiphany of his own in Brooklyn.
The two would meet on Smith's first night in New York, and it marked the beginning of a relationship that would last for two decades. To hear Smith tell it, Mapplethorpe served as both ballast and mentor during these early years: "In the beginning, I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work." While the young lovers didn't have money, often dining on Mallomars and stealing art supplies, they had something even more sustaining: shared artistic ambitions and a mutual love of Tim Hardin records and William Blake's poetry.
If this sounds impossibly romantic, some of it is, particularly a moment where the derelict residents of a fleabag 8th Street motel bid young Patti and Robert adieu as the couple heads toward better times at the Hotel Chelsea. But Smith, who earned some of her rent money working as a freelance journalist, is careful throughout Just Kids to keep the flowery bits to a minimum. Readers familiar with her sometimes pretentious, confounding poetry and lyrics will be taken aback at how engaging, clear-eyed and unfussy her prose is here.
These writing chops are on full display in Smith's vivid descriptions of the years at the Chelsea. In addition to charting her shifting relationship with Mapplethorpe, who was soon to come out of the closet as gay, she also records a long-gone moment in New York City history. It was a time when bohemians behind on rent could still stay at the Chelsea if they coughed up paintings as collateral, and where the marginal drag queens and drug addicts in Warhol's universe could become movie stars lording over the best tables at Max's Kansas City.
Just Kids features Smith's encounters with people who were celebrities in their own right, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to William S. Burroughs to Lou Reed. Some of them would become Smith's lovers – Jim Carroll during her poetry phase, Sam Shepard during her brief stints as an actor and playwright, and Allen Lanier in the moments before she became a rock star. But these relationships are never recounted in salacious, I'm with the Band kind of detail. Smith comes across as someone who was always more interested in what she once called "brainiac amour." Each of these men served less as a love object than a teacher, particularly Shepard, who she credits with imparting this valuable lesson: "When you hit a wall, just kick it in."
Through it all, her relationship with Mapplethorpe is the one constant, perhaps because, as she notes, "He saw in me more than I could see in myself." Smith is hell-bent on giving Mapplethorpe his due as artist and mentor in Just Kids, but there is always another, more compelling story going on: her own.
From the book's early stages, Smith emerges as a creative force in her own right – stealing a copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations at 16 so she can study the poet's "haughty gaze"; wrapping herself in Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde scarves; or venturing to Paris to seek out Jim Morrison's grave. Later, in New York, she would mimic Jeanne Moreau's sullen moves as Mapplethorpe's model and study rock magazines before chopping her hair into a matted, Keith Richards 'do. Whether Smith was aware of it or not, she was always inventing herself, and all of these moments read like dress rehearsals before the moment when she'd finally cop the steely eyed gaze immortalized on the cover of Horses.
Smith has gone on to adopt many more poses in her career: poet, painter, playwright, actor, androgynous fashion pioneer, model, muse, survivor, rock star. Though she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, a recent documentary, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, offers a glimpse of how she would like to be perceived.
Dismissing her rock icon status with an embarrassed laugh, she proceeds to talk about Walt Whitman, who claimed to have written each of his poems for the young poets who would live 100 years after his time. Just Kids reads the same way: a portrait of the artist as a young woman designed to inspire all those who will come after her. Smith is still a legend, but in showing all the dues she paid to earn that title, she's created a work that's as punk rock as anything she ever did in the 1970s — maybe even more so.
Just Kids is published by HarperCollins and is in stores now.
Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.