Review: Patti Smith's Just Kids

The small prophecies of Patti Smith
By CARRIE BATTAN  |  February 8, 2010

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MORE PATTI SMITH FROM THE PHOENIX ARCHIVES

READ: "On the Road Again, Part 1: With Patti Smith and Bob Dylan," a backstage diary by Al Giordano

READ: "Positively okay: Dylan still has authority; Patti Smith has that and more," by Stephanie Zacharek

READ: "Trampin’ on: The spirit of punk rock lives in Patti Smith," by Brett Milano

How do you get to be the Godmother of Punk? Pure dumb luck, for starters. Had a despairing 20-year-old Patti Smith not stepped into the phone booth at a bus stop in Philadelphia in 1967, she wouldn't have stumbled upon another woman's abandoned purse containing enough money to fund her one-way ticket to New York City. She might have postponed the hastily planned voyage or returned, dejected, to her parents' home in New Jersey and ultimately failed to cross the path of the young Robert Mapplethorpe in Brooklyn. She might have never recorded Horses.

"I can only thank, as I have within myself many times through the years, this unknown benefactor. She was the one who gave me the last piece of encouragement, a thief's good-luck sign," Smith writes.

This is how Smith has pieced together the tale of her young-adult life, her artistic ascent, and most importantly, her partnership with the late Mapplethorpe -- a photographer whose homoerotic subject matter often toed the line between art and obscenity in the eyes of his critics. In her new memoir and first book of prose, Just Kids (Harper Collins), the revered punk icon interlaces a set of what she calls the "small prophecies" -- some self-fulfilled, others divinely coordinated, most a bit far-fetched -- that seemingly forged the path of her life and body of work.

When Smith got off the bus and made her way to the apartment of some friends in Brooklyn hoping to crash and found that they'd moved, it was Mapplethorpe (then a complete stranger) who greeted her in an LSD-induced trance and magically delivered her to the correct address of her pals. A later chance encounter in Tompkins Square Park -- where Smith begged Mapplethorpe to pretend he was her boyfriend so as to avoid a potentially horrific sexcapade with an older man -- was "like an answer to a teenage prayer." The two were joined at the hip from that point forward as part of a confounding romantic odyssey, torn apart, and sewn back together by Mapplethorpe's tumultuous exploration of his homosexuality.

Later, Smith recalls her snap decision to taxi an ailing Mapplethorpe to the Chelsea Hotel (their future residence and a bohemian hotbed where the pair would flourish as artists), deeming this "proof that the Fates were conspiring to help their enthusiastic children." A bit breathless? Perhaps, but Smith's humble narrative lacks the pretense that would make us wary of her wide-eyed tendency toward superstitious and destiny-propelled storytelling.

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