Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

ECCO, 2010

It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous—the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years.

Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.

Just Kids is a memoir by one of the iconic women at the top of rock world, Patti Smith. I discovered her music a few years ago prompted by the ‘Piss Factory’ and moved on to her debut album ‘Horses’. Thus when I opened the book, I expected it to focus mostly on her career as a musician – only to discover that, more than anything, Patti Smith is a writer and a poet. The book was published in 2010, received critical acclaim and was named as one of the most inspiring artist memoirs of the year. Ever since hearing about it, Just Kids has been on my radar of memoirs that I want to read, but what really prompted me to read the book now was the fact that Smith is publishing a second memoir of her New York years in October, titled M Train.

Just Kids is a memoir based in the New York art scene in the 1970s and in it Patti Smith recounts her life together with artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith was born in Chicago in 1946, but her family moved around before settling to New Jersey from where she eventually moved to New York at the age of 20. With only a bundle of clothes, a bag of books and a waitress uniform from her mother, she vagabonded around the city searching for a job. During that time Smith met Robert Mapplethorpe and discovering that their shared passion for art, they fell in love and moved together. Just Kids maps the journey of both Patti and Robert in New York from love to friendship and from self-discovery to religion, and it brings to life their passion for art and drive to work, the community of artists living close to one another and inspiring each other, the pains and joys of getting your work out there as well as the frustration of not being able to execute your vision. Just Kids is dedicated to the memory of Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids in 1989, and Smith writes with passion and heart of their time together and apart, of the struggle of Mapplethorpe realising his sexuality, and of him discovering the form of photography – the art that made him famous.

I fell in love with Patti Smith’s writing from page one. The text flows from page to page and the book is filled with memorable lines that you stop to read again and again. Discovering her passion for poetry and writing made me view her music in a new light and connect the dots with her style, which is very much influenced by the spoken poetry. What’s truly interesting about the relationship between the two artists depicted in Just Kids is how different they could be – whereas at times Mapplethorpe was anxious about money and gaining fame, Smith knew they would survive and had bouts of introspection. My understanding and appreciation towards Patti Smith grew immensely the more I read, and the descriptions of creating and working with art where inspiring me to pick up my pen and start creating my own. However, Smith also doesn’t shy away from the roughness of artist life – the low and unreliable income, the doubts of ever succeeding, the negative criticism, etc. The image that she paints with her words of New York in the 1970s is vivid and buzzing with creative energy – and made me wish that you could travel back in time.

Just Kids is essentially a diary of the defining years of two artist living and creating together, of the people around them (among others Burroughs and Capote), and of discovering yourself over and over again. It is a very inspirational book and has become one of my favourites – I need to get a copy of this for myself! I highly recommend it the readers interested in artist memoirs, New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and above all – Patti Smith.


We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing principles, light and dark.

2 thoughts on “Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

  1. I love Patti Smith (I basically wake up every day disappointed that I’m not her) but weirdly I’ve avoided reading this, because I so badly don’t want it to be a let-down. You’ve persuaded me to risk it!

    • I can understand that you might be feeling anxious about the book not living up to your expectations, but hey – it converted me! Now I, too, want to be her.

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