:: Article

A Prelude to Fame

By Max Dunbar.


Just Kids, Patti Smith, Bloomsbury 2010

The opening line of Patti Smith’s Horses – ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’ – still retains its power to tighten the blood. For me the record is about being sixteen, sitting by the window of an attic bedroom in a town I wanted to leave, listening to Smith’s savage vocal coming through on a shitty hifi and one dodgy speaker, ribbons turning on the dayglo green cassette with its handwritten label. The album filled me with passion and purpose every time I heard it. I couldn’t listen to ‘Birdland’ without feeling like I was actually there; and at sixteen I had no idea where Birdland was.

Autobiographies are notoriously self-serving, providing an opportunity for public figures to rake up old grudges and settle arguments of no value or interest to anyone but the author and their past and present intimates. (Think Alan Partridge: ‘Needless to say, I had the last laugh.’) Smith’s book is a fine corrective. On a July day in 1967, the twenty-one year old Patti Smith left her dying New Jersey town and got the Broadway bus to Philadelphia. The fare to NYC had almost doubled since her last visit. Thinking of calling home, Smith went into a phone box, where she found a mislaid purse containing more than enough to cover her journey. Just Kids is full of moments like this; flashes of coincidence and deus ex machina that no writer would dare use in fiction, but that frequently obtain in real life.

The memoir concentrates on Smith’s early days of struggle in the city – the blurb describes it as ‘a prelude to fame’. Just Kids is about scarcity, minimum wage, federal housing, spoken word gigs in Williamsburg delis. A creepy theme throughout the book is that famous people keep dying – John Coltrane departs shortly after Smith’s arrival, and the big names keep on coming in a steady toll; King, Kennedy, Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Jones… a litany of those fallen to Smith’s ‘cruel plagues of a generation’. Throughout the book I kept hearing Stephen King’s words from the Dark Tower books: O Discordia!

A lot of the content is devoted to Smith’s soulmate, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe; their relationship is a steel thread running through these strange days of infidelities and chaos. We never quite see what Smith sees in the man. She doesn’t paint a clear portrait of him, and he comes through mainly in his work and actions. Mapplethorpe is simply out there: he can be observed, but not understood.

The photographer’s rise came long before the singer’s and Smith finds herself in the role of wife-or-girlfriend in Mapplethorpe’s increasingly exclusive social fairground. She recalls her undisguised boredom at dinner parties – it’s a curiosity of civilisation that eating is seen as a social occasion – and hustling for ramshackle poetry gigs while Mapplethorpe is feted as art’s second coming. There are some strong observations on other artists, poets and icons: Mapplethorpe rejects Warhol because he feels an artist should transform his time, not just mirror it; Gregory Corso heckles performance poets with shouts of ‘No blood! Get a transfusion!’ (Corso, where are you now?) Of Charles Manson, Mapplethorpe tells us that he likes the killer’s X tattoo but not the man himself: ‘He’s insane. Insanity doesn’t interest me.’

But there is no bitterness in Smith’s story, because there was never doubt. Like Jim Morrison, Smith began as a poet. On seeing the Lizard King in action, she ‘observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Morrison, that I could do that.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 21st, 2010.