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Long before Patti Smith became “the Godmother of Punk” she was a not- atypical teenager of the 1960s, living with her parents in suburban New Jersey. She listened to Bob Dylan and John Lennon on the jukebox; she idolized the rebel poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire; she wrote (bad) poetry in secret notebooks; she dreamed of being Frida Kahlo.
Just Kids (HarperCollins/Ecco) is Smith’s surprisingly tender-hearted memoir of her early years trying to make ends meet and (somehow) become famous in New York City, where, in the summer of 1967, “a chance encounter changed the course of my life. It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.” The cover photo shows the two young “bohemians- in-training” celebrating their second anniversary at Coney Island. Both are wearing their best finery: Patti in India cotton and a headband, Robert resembling “a character in Brighton Rock in his forties-style hat, black net T-shirt and huaraches.” They look so young; fame was still a distant dream.
It all broke open in 1975 with the release of Smith’s first album, Horses, the first track of which features Smith snarling the opening line to her take on Van Morrison’s “Gloria”: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Mapplethorpe took that album’s cover photograph and went on to his own enormous fame (and no small measure of notoriety) as a photographer. By 1989 he was dead of AIDS.
Just Kids is Smith’s fulfillment of a promise she made to Mapplethorpe before he died: to one day write their story. It is a darker, punk-era version of the classic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story: two dreamers from the suburbs who finally succeeded in their goal of becoming artists in New York City, where thousands before and since them have failed.