I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train,
I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City
I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City,
I’m gonna be so big, I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn at this Piss Factory
– Patti Smith, ‘Piss Factory’
I have been reading extracts from Patti Smith’s memoir of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which has just been published. The extracts are so beautifully written and so evocative that this has to go on my list of must-read books. The following extracts are published in today’s Observer and in Rolling Stone on January 7.
On 3 July 1967, Patti Smith – a 20-year-old dropout from teacher-training college who had just given up a child for adoption – boarded a bus in Philadelphia and, a couple of hours later, got off in New York to start life anew. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the first people she met that day. Soon the pair were inseparable, working side by side in their apartment – she building a career as a poet and singer, he as a photographer – and mixing with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol and Sam Shepard.
At 20 years old, I boarded the bus from Philadelphia to New York. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old grey raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.
I immediately took the subway from Port Authority to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. It was a sunny afternoon. I was hoping my friends might put me up until I could find a place of my own. I went
to the brownstone at the address I had, but they had moved. The new tenant motioned toward a room at the rear of the flat and suggested that his roommate might know the new address.
I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled.
When I told him of my plight, he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him. I watched him as he walked ahead, leading the way with a light-footed gait, slightly bowlegged. I noticed his hands as he tapped his fingers against his thigh. I had never seen anyone like him. He delivered me to another brownstone on Clinton Avenue, gave a little farewell salute, smiled, and was on his way.
[Smith’s friends were not to be found at this house either, and she spent the next few weeks sleeping rough.]
It was hot in the city, but I still wore my raincoat. It gave me confidence as I hit the streets looking for work. I was relieved when I was hired as a cashier in the uptown branch of Brentano’s bookstore. I would have preferred manning the poetry section over ringing up sales of ethnic jewellery and crafts, but I liked looking at trinkets from faraway countries. My favorite object was a modest necklace from Persia. It was made of two enamelled metal plaques bound together with heavy black and silver threads, like a very old and exotic scapular. It cost $18, which seemed like a lot of money.