Patti Smith has published a new book, M Train—a work whose charm has much to do with its lithe resistance to the constrictions of any particular genre—as her earlier Just Kids (2010), her memoir of her early partnership with Robert Mapplethorpe, continues to exercise a lively influence. Even before Showtime announced over the summer that it would be the basis for a TV miniseries, it was clear that Just Kids was sending down roots in the culture. For younger readers it serves as an irresistible window into the New York era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, what with a supporting cast including Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, and Allen Ginsberg, set against such backdrops as Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel. But I suspect that beyond adding another layer to the collective legend of that period, it will take its place as one of those durable books that people turn to for an object lesson, a demonstration of possibilities, on how to make a beginning in life.
In recounting how Smith and Mapplethorpe fled the prospect of narrow futures (she escaping soul-crushing factory work in southern New Jersey and he the limits of a rigidly Catholic family in Floral Park, Long Island) and scrounged out independent artistic lives for themselves in New York City, Just Kids relives the bedeviling confusion and panic of starting from zero—zero resources and zero encouragement—and attempting to make a life one can call one’s own. To invoke the vulnerability and magical destinies of fairy-tale characters—“We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world,” Smith writes of herself and Mapplethorpe—is to reenter the eddy of uncertainty that the young know well yet so often, once settled in life, tend to smooth over in memory. In Smith’s pages that swirl becomes a new encapsulation of an old romantic ideal, in the image of the young couple who nourish each other’s artistic energies. It is like the resurrection of a discarded dream: that hermetic religion of art in which love transcends itself in a magnificent consuming alchemy to yield selfless art on the far end of its grueling process.
For latecomers such romanticism is tinged with the exoticism of a city that no longer exists, a world of lost possibilities where a low-rent marginal existence was possible if not necessarily comfortable, a city for scavengers where ghostly daguerreotypes and talismanic religious objects might be retrieved from the unlikeliest shelves and street corner bundles, and where, in the absence of MFA programs and other well-organized channels for the creative process, those just starting out were obliged to make things up for themselves, relying on whatever tutelary guides they were fortunate enough to encounter. When Smith writes of herself at the…
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