Customers are lined up down the stairs and out the door of the American Book Center on the Spui in Amsterdam. A few of them are holding well-worn LPs. But most of them—especially the kids in their twenties—are carrying copies of “Just Kids,” the wildly successful, award-winning memoir by the punk singer Patti Smith. On both sides of the cash register, Smith’s books are piled high. It’s Patti Smith the writer, not Patti Smith the rock star, that the fans have come to see.
A sign on the door says she’ll sign only one item per person, limited to books and her new CD, “Banga.” But the older fans who make it to the second floor carrying their copies of “Easter” or “Horses” don’t go away disappointed. There she is behind a little table, in her usual look: a watch cap, her long hair in braids. “Sure, I’ll sign that. I’ll sign anything,” she volunteers. She looks tired, and her voice is hoarse, but her smile makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. Around the corner, standing near the business books, Lenny Kaye offers to add his signature to hers, though not everyone recognizes the tall, stringy, gray-haired man as Smith’s longtime guitarist.
At 65, Smith is working hard: her dates in Paradiso and at Bospop in Weert are just part of a three-month tour of Europe to promote “Banga.” But her big success in recent years has been “Just Kids,” about her life in New York before she began performing and her love affair and collaboration with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
In a brief interview the next day, in a tiny back room in Paradiso, she says she wrote “Just Kids” to fulfill a promise to Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. “I thought a small group of people might like it.” Though she was always a poet as well as a musician, she had no idea the book would find such an enthusiastic audience. “It’s wonderful. I mean, I can’t even believe it. People every day say something to me about this book.”
At the heart of “Just Kids” is the love and support that the two young artists gave each other. After Mapplethorpe realized he was gay they went on living together, their friendship and artistic partnership closer than many a love affair. Even after Smith moved out, they remained best friends. How did they achieve such a rare collaboration?
“The important thing was that because he was so confident at such a young age, confident in himself, he instilled that confidence in me. And because I believed in him so fully, it was probably comforting and inspiring to him. And we always fulfilled those roles for each other.
I don’t know if it is rare….It might be more common than not, but what may be uncommon is that Robert and I went through so many stages of relationship….We weathered many stages of the human experience together.”
The book is also about Smith’s life on the margins: no money, largely self-taught, living hand-to-mouth, devoted to books and poetry, hanging around with musicians, writers, and drag queens. In its portrait of the artist as outsider, with the poet Rimbaud as her hero, it’s as romantic as any story of turn-of-the-century Paris. For kids now who want to live, as Smith once sang, “outside of society,” does she think it’s any different? Is there more or less room in the margins?
“Well, of course, it’s four decades later. It’s a different world. I mean, the creative scene was smaller then. To be an artist, to be a homosexual, to be a poet…these things were marginalized already. Now we live in a more open society in terms of creativity….Anyone can make a record these days. Anyone can post their work on the internet. We have a black president in America. People are not as heavily marginalized because of their sexual persuasion.”
On the other hand, she believes, “It’s tougher than ever in terms of the amount of control governments and corporations have over us….You know, we evolve as human beings, and our culture evolves, not always for the best.”
Smith herself quit performing in 1980, married, and spent most of 15 years raising children. It’s a period she doesn’t mention in “Just Kids.” Still, she insists, having children “doesn’t mean one isn’t an artist or one isn’t a revolutionary, or one isn’t a poet. It just means that you’re responsible for another human being….We shift how we deal with the social element for the sake of our children. But if one is a poet, one is a poet. Your lifestyle might be different, but your consciousness is intact. I did some of my best work when I was raising my children, because I was obliged to be more disciplined. I couldn’t sit up all night dreaming, or daydreaming, working on a poem.”
Now that her children are in their twenties and she is alone again, she spends a lot of her time working. She says writing a “companion book” to “Just Kids,” about her life after her relationship with Robert. There’s also a detective novel she’s working on, among other projects.
Despite her openness to her fans, there’s much in Smith’s life that remains unsaid. Her years as a wife and mother. Her decision to stop performing for 15 years. Her spiritual side—in “Just Kids” she lets drop that she says her prayers before she goes to bed. “Yeah,” she says now. “I might say them when I’m walking down the street at night. You know, prayer takes on many forms. Sometimes it’s to God, sometimes it’s to nature, sometimes to my mother, sometimes just a general thank you for all the elements. It’s part of my life.”
If the waiting fans have any luck, all these sides of Patti Smith may become the subjects of her next literary success.
Trouw, July 11, 2012.