Patty Smith interview

Godmother of punk tells Time Out about her prize-winning writing

The Knowledge

At the start of our interview, Patty states, ‘I’m not a musician.’ Rather: ‘I am a performer, and I do sing.’ It’s not a surprising qualification, given the frank tone she strikes in her new memoir, Just Kids. Smith’s book tells of herself and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as struggling artists in New York in the ’60s and ’70s.

You write about moving easily into the New York arts world of that time, such as when you enter the Chelsea Hotel and see Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. That was a beautiful time because we didn’t have this cult of celebrity. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have endless magazines. Artists and rock ’n’ roll stars, they weren’t celebrities yet. If you were an artist, everyone was united with the same purpose.

Your daughter, Jesse, is now about the age you were in the book. What difference do you see between your world at that age and hers?
Technology has totally changed. When Robert and I were young, we didn’t have a TV, a telephone, a fax machine, a computer, a mobile phone or an iPad. These things didn’t exist. Robert and I didn’t have a credit card.

Or meals, at times.
We lived hand to mouth. If we didn’t make money to buy food, we didn’t eat.

It sounds like you have some nostalgia for that time.
No, I’m not – I mean, it was a time [when] everyone was alive. So it’s much more complicated than nostalgic for a time period. I lost many, many friends and loved ones all under 45 years old. The time of struggle is a beautiful time, but at 63 years old, I like where I am.

The book is infused with a sense of loss. What was it like writing it?
Sometimes it was enjoyable because I could really feel Robert’s presence, and other times it was sad. I tried not to be beguiled either way because I had a mission: to give the people Robert.

It took you years to write it.
Robert asked me to write it right before he died in ’89, but I couldn’t bear to start. And then with the death of my husband and the death of my brother, I lost a very important support system. This book was focused on Robert and I; our evolution together, our friendship and giving the world a more holistic portrait of Robert.

Did you feel you needed to counteract the popular notion of Robert Mapplethorpe?
The people that have written about Robert didn’t know him as a young man. It wasn’t that I wanted to correct anybody; it was that I knew him. There is no untruth in my book. His generosity, his sweetness, his mischievousness, his work ethic and his conflict were all things that I experienced first-hand. In the ’60s and mid-’70s, I don’t think anyone knew him better, and he knew that.

You were just a few years old when your family left Chicago. Why did your parents decide to move?
My father couldn’t find any work, and the rooming houses back in the ’40s didn’t want children. There my mother was with two little ones and pregnant.

Can you recall Chicago from that early age?
Oh, yes. I used to sit on this little stoop on Kedzie – we lived right near Logan Square. I used to sit and wait for the iceman to come; they still had horse-drawn wagons. And I remember an organ grinder who had a monkey.
Interview by Novid Parsi.

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