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Nov 18 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Word Smith: Punk Rocker Wins National Book Award

Patti Smith just won the National Book Award for her beautiful memoir, Just Kids (Ecco Books). Smith gives us the tender story of her longtime relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two met in the summer of 1969, when both were hungry and homeless in New York City, and quickly fell in love. They were proverbial starving artists and often faced a choice between buying art supplies or day-old bread.

Just Kids book cover

Just Kids book cover

Smith and Mapplethorpe served as artist and muse to each other. Smith writes she was happiest when “we would work side by side for hours, in a state of mutual concentration.” These were their formative years, when Smith encouraged Mapplethorpe to take photos, while he told her she should sing.

by Robert Mapplethorpe

by Robert Mapplethorpe

Back then, they were so poor they couldn’t afford two tickets to the new Whitney Museum, “so one of us would go in, look at the exhibits, and report back to the other.” Afterward, he told her once while walking to the subway, “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours.”

Both would make their mark on the art world. Smith became an influential poet and singer, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Mapplethorpe elevated photography as an art form in America, and gained notoriety during the culture wars of the 1990s. His early photographs are scattered throughout the book, including one of Smith that became the cover art for her album Horses.

Smith doesn’t exactly dish about the 1970s art scene in New York City, but she does provide the reader with a seat at the table in Max’s Kansas City, the Factory, Chelsea Hotel, St. Mark’s Place, Electric Lady studios, and CBGB. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Sam Shepard all make appearances, along with many other artists.

Smith and Mapplethorpe remained close even as Mapplethorpe began to embrace his homosexuality. And, no, she didn’t realize he was gay. “I never saw him through the lens of his sexuality,” she writes. “My picture of him remained intact. He was the artist of my life.”

Just Kids is a testament to the young artist who reads Rimbaud, scrapes together every cent to pay the rent.

At the Nation Book Award ceremony, Smith said she had “loved books all my life.”

“When I was a clerk at Scribner’s bookstore, I always dreamed of writing a book of my own,” she said. “When I had to unpack the winners of the National Book Awards and put them on the shelf, I used to wonder what it would feel like to win one.

“Thank you very much for letting me find out,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

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