I’d say it’s about time that somebody did for the Catholics what Steven Beeber, in 2007’s The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s, did for the Jews. Punk rock, argued Beeber, especially New York punk rock, is a Jewish thing — in support of which contention he adduced the wit of Lenny Bruce, the poetics of Lou Reed, the dialectic of the Ramones (trust me, there was one), and the complex, fabricated libido of Blondie. Pace Beeber, there was another socio-religious identity at work in New York’s 1970s underculture: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, like Jim Carroll and Andy Warhol, were tribally Catholic. (As of course was sufferin’ Jack Kerouac, the grandaddy of them all, with his sacramental visions of homo viator.) And after reading Just Kids, Smith’s memoir of the life she and Mapplethorpe shared in pursuit of their respective vocations, you’ll be aware that this is something more than a coincidence.
Can anyone beat Patti Smith for rocking-ness? I imagine some white-haired professor or illuminatus, three hundred years hence, being asked by his curious students to summarize the brief twentieth-century cultural phenomenon known as “rock’n’roll.” “Rock’n’roll?” he says, pleased. “Well, it couldn’t be simpler, luckily for us. It begins and ends with Patti Smith’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’”. A snap of the fingers, a hologram buzzes to life — Patti mid-air in 3-D, the grave stoic head on the electrically scrawny body, one shoulder exposed, spitting “Baby was a black sheep, Baby was a whore! You know she got big, well, she’s gonna get bigg-UH!…” He beams about him. The class is agog. The case is made.
And yet Just Kids is about as un-rock’n’roll as it’s possible for a book to be while still including an appearance by Gregory Corso. (“Gregory lit a cigarette and read from my pile of abandoned poems, drifting off, making a little burn mark on the arm of the chair. I poured some of my Nescafé on it.”) The book is an act of recall in the Augustinian mode, closer to Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul than to, I don’t know, David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat. The language is solemn, every word weighed, and the mood devout, even if Smith’s saints and martyrs are a gang of heretical Romantic burnouts. Arthur Rimbaud, in particular, is a supernatural consolation to the young Patti as she struggles on the assembly lines of 1960s South Jersey. “Rimbaud held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it. My unrequited love for him was as real to me as anything I had experienced. At the factory where I had labored with a hard-edged, illiterate group of women, I was harassed in his name.”
Arriving in Manhattan in the summer of 1967, penniless and refusing to take off her raincoat, Smith meets the young Robert Mapplethorpe, all charm. They bond over an eighteen-dollar Persian necklace: Smith compares it to a scapula, prompting Mapplethorpe to ask if she’s Catholic. “No,” replies Smith, “I just like Catholic things.” Mapplethorpe, an ex-altar boy, confides that he used to love swinging the censer. And so begin two decades of spiritual comradeship: Smith and Mapplethorpe, embryos in New York, fall in love. They bounce around the underground for ages, evolving away, Smith struggling with her poetry and songs, “meditations on the death of Mayakovsky and ruminations about Bob Dylan,” Mapplethorpe struggling mainly with himself. Watching Jim Morrison do his thing with the Doors one night, Smith finds herself not transported but unexpectedly sober, “in a state of cold hyperawareness.” From out of her then-anonymity she appraises Morrison; she understands him. “I felt both kinship and contempt for him.” It will be years before she discovers that she herself is a rock’n’roll star – but Just Kids is full of these auguries.
Mapplethorpe makes things, he does drawings, he pursues obsessions: occultism, gay magazines. On a slow Sunday afternoon he takes a soldering iron to the groin of a Madonna. He discovers hustling and photography at more or less the same time: the camera’s lens is freighted thereafter with his trademark heavy eroticism, flesh-worship thickly coiled. One night Smith comes home to find him in the talons of a bad LSD trip, “staring into an oval mirror, flanked by a black whip and a devil’s mask he had spray-painted months before… The devil was gaining on him, morphing his features, which like the mask were distorted and blood red.”
Smith, meanwhile, picking up confidence, picking up musicians, is working towards her own initiatory piece of blasphemy. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”: the shivering first line of 1975’s Horses (cover shot by Mapplethorpe). She calls it “a declaration of existence.” And Rimbaud and Corso and Mayakovsky, and the skittering prosody of Bob Dylan, and the drunken tremblings of Jack Kerouac, and her muttering, praying girlhood with its “small torrent of words” are all united at last in her style, her “babelogue.”
Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989, by which point Smith was deep into semi-retirement and her marriage to Fred “Sonic” Smith, ex-guitarist for the MC5. If one senses at moments in Just Kids her concern that a destructive acceleration had overtaken his life, and perhaps imperiled his soul, the two were nonetheless friends until the end. Passionate friends, which is really the defining image of this somber and rather lovely book: two strange Catholic children, quite un-at-home in the world, treating each other with heroic tenderness, heroic generosity.