The Poetry of Youth and Loss
My first encounter with Patti Smith was at a Ralph Nader rally in 2000, where she gave a speech over at the Kaiser Auditorium in the East Bay. I simply thought of her as the middle-aged, frizzy-haired hippie-type that I encountered all the time growing up. I’m still not really familiar with her music, but I recently finished Just Kids, her testament of close friendship to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Just Kids is essentially the Portrait of the Artist as a young woman in the New York in the late 1960s and 1970s. Patti runs away from the factory life of New Jersey and has brushes with Andy Warhol’s factory instead. If it was anyone else, you would call the author a name-dropper, but because Ms. Smith is famous in her own right, her casual references to Warhol, Alan Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jan Wenner, etc., function as a catalogue of ships, or rather catalogue of artists at the Chelsea Hotel. This is Patti’s origin story, and she was surrounded by gods.
Her relationships with the young, famous, and damned, however, weren’t the feature of the story that made the deepest impression on me. Rather, my head was stuck on her descriptions of living in artistic squalor. She describes catching lice, not once, but at least twice, once in Paris, and once from one of her boyfriends. Her wardrobe was chic, but expertly thrifted or found on the street. Mold was removed from loft spaces, turned into art studios, and food was cooked over a hot plate. For whatever reason, her narrative brought back a memory of my third-grade teacher, Ms. S, who told us stories of living a missionary life in Nicaragua, and of dumpster diving for food in San Francisco supermarket parking lots (these stories were told with an eye towards getting her students to donate their change to Catholic charities). They were kindred spirits in pursuit of art or public service.
Patti’s story is also Mapplethorpe’s story, the artist-hustler, who would later go on to be the center of the 1980’s culture wars (as a kid in San Francisco in the 1980’s AIDs, earthquakes, Dan White, and Mapplethorpe seemed to dominate the local TV news that I consumed). The tale of youth is sandwiched in between an elegy for Mapplethorpe, and Patti’s dirge echoes another recent memoir on loss, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. While Didion’s book was written while see was still in grief’s throes, Patti’s tale is one of the loss that lingers, even two decades after a dear friend has died.