From Rags to Riches

Reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, I removed the idea of her being a famous Punk musician from my thought process in beginning the reading. Patti Smith’s early portions of her life and her experiences in New York reflect a grasp onto hope and promise of succeeding in a land of opportunity. Smith writes how she was initially homeless in New York, scrapping the streets for food and begging for a place to stay. I find it amazing that even in this worst-case scenario, Smith never lost hope, she never gave up and always tried to push herself forward in life. She truly grasped the opportunity of New York and the American Dream to grow from an impoverished woman to a successful star.

Upon meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s world is transformed as she meets her true soul mate who she could endure the hardships of the big city with. The fact that they relied greatly on each other and trusted each other in the harshest of times shows that true companionship is not material, but rather requires an emotional contact.

Together, the couple experiments (both positively and negatively) with the growing opportunities of New York. Smith finds opportunity in the artistic quality of New York, meeting new people and traversing its museums. Mapplethorpe contrasts her experiences by testing drugs, his sexuality and the underbelly of New York. Even though we may not fully agree with their preferences for experimentation, it was here in New York that the couple was able to truly find their identity and fully grasp it.

I think that at its base, Just Kids represents the idea of finding your identity in this life and exploring the options the world has to offer. Patti Smith may not have been successful if she had stayed home with her family and became a struggling waitress, but her strive to push forward in life allowed her to succeed. Smith and Mapplethorpe represent the rebellious subculture that America created, which gave birth to many creations such as new forms of art, expression and identity. By detailing her struggle, Smith truly shows that any rational dream can be achieved with the right amount of work and perseverance. Reading her early experiences, one would not think she would become a successful singer, but more likely a faltering artist or writer. In recounting her early life, she gives hope to the younger generations who read her book, and defines the idea of an American Dream–that people can do whatever they want when they come to America and succeed in doing so.

-Joseph Valerio

Struggle and Sacrifice

A recurring theme I noticed in both the book and the interview was that of sacrifice.

Patti Smith leaves behind her family and friends to head to New York City in the hopes of locating comfort in the company of other struggling artists.

She gives up her child for adoption in the wish that it will have a more stable life than she could offer.

Smith abandons her safety, living day to day on the streets and in friends’ apartments in order to feel the freedom her art requires.

She and Mapplethorpe are forced to choose between food and new art supplies due to the confines of their budget.

Mapplethorpe sacrifices his fervent love for Patti so that he may explore his newly discovered sexual orientation.

Both find they often must relinquish their devotion to art for stressful, monotonous jobs to make ends meet.

However, these sacrifices prove worth the pain for the final product.  Both artists, in all of their loss and suffering, manage to create such raw, wondrous pieces.  They became not only a part of their generation but creators of it.  As Smith mentions in the interview, she did not know at the time that what she was doing was so revolutionary.  Nonetheless, both endured monumental hardship but forged ahead, also forging the artistic and political framework of a new generation.

-Jacqui Larsen


Godmother of Punk

Patti Smith, the “Godmother of Punk,” was an extremely influential singer-songwriter and poet in the punk rock movement. She took America by storm with her fusion of poetry and rock n roll.

What struck me about the interview with Patti Smith was how she viewed her talent. She admitted to not having as good a voice as her friends, which I found odd, considering that singing was her livelihood. She then followed this comment by adding that singing is not about having the perfect singing voice. To Patti Smith, music is more than just singing. To her, it is an art that demands more of the artist than just singing words in a way people like. Patti Smith epitomized this philosophy and her energy, personality, and lyrics attracted her huge fan base- not her amazing voice.

Another notable idea shared by Patti Smith in her interview was that she desired to create music that was not as glamorous and materialistic as the other music of her time. Smith’s goal was to produce significant music that sent a message. She wanted to help people who felt marginalized by society for being different. Her lyrics offered a helping hand to the homosexuals and nonconformists.

Patti Smith was more than just a singer; she was a performer who brought her true self to the stage. Her music had substance and purpose. Smith’s objective to make her first album and then return to normal life was never realized; which is fortunate, because without her, the world would have missed out on one great artist.

-Robin Cohen

“Nobody sees as we do.”

I already knew the name Patti Smith, but I really didn’t really know anything about her or her music, or even the 60s artistic movements aside from what we learn in a history class, until I started to read Just Kids. The book has really broadened my views about what those years entailed, and also put a very humanistic sentiment into it. If I ever put a thought into the personalities of the artists of the 60s, I always assumed that they were all rebellious and anarchic and drug-addled. Although this is in some ways true, I’ve found it doesn’t begin to cover the emotions displayed by all the artists, the most prominent of emotions being displayed by Patti Smith and her lover and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. It was really interesting for me to see the gentle, romantic side of a rock and roll icon considered to be so edgy and radical.

I find there’s something really whimsical and quixotic about the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. They seem to be so in sync with each other that it’s almost too perfect. They never really argue, and for the most part they seem to understand each other’s minds and the extent of each other’s creativity in a way that no one else can. There is a period of unease when Mapplethorpe is deeply troubled and Smith struggles to find a way to reach him, which results in them parting ways, yet they still manage to find each other again when they need each other most. Their relationship is so artless and genuine that it seems a privilege to have this view into their fascinating lives, when so much art was being created. It’s really true when Mapplethorpe tells Smith, “Nobody sees as we do”.

The Chelsea Hotel: A New York Icon

New York is home to many iconic hotels, but one that stands out for its role in the worlds of art and music is the Hotel Chelsea. This historic landmark opened in 1884 as an apartment building, but when that business venture failed, it was reopened as a hotel. At the time when it was built, it was the tallest building in new York City, standing at twelve stories tall.

The hotel is a red brick structure with elaborate wrought-iron balconies, an homage to Gothic architecture. Most famously, the Chelsea Hotel was home to many culture icons. Writers who lived there were Mark Twain, O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, William S. Burroughs, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, and Simone de Beauvoir. Actors and directors who lived there include Stanley Kubrick, Ethan Hawke, Eddie Izzard, Uma Thurman, Dennis Hopper, Elliot Gould, Michael Imperioli, Jane Fonda, and Edie Sedgwick. The hotel is most remembered for its place in music history. Musicians such as Patti Smith (who lived in the hotel with her soulmate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe), Virgil Thomson, DeeDee Ramone, Edith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Sid Vicious (who infamously stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in the hotel in 1978) called the hotel home at some point in their careers. The Hotel Chelsea’s staircase is lined with the work of artists who have lived there, including Frida Kahlo, Edie Sedgwick, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The exterior and interior of the Hotel Chelsea

The Chelsea Hotel very much reflects the new artistic movements occurring in New York City at the time. It had an independent, fresh, bohemian air to it. It was a place of change, reform, and revolution.

Fun facts: Apparently the ghosts of Nancy Spungen, Dylan Thomas, and Eugene O’Neill haunt the Hotel Chelsea…

-Sarah Allam