Not Just Kids

The young lives of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were anything but normal. As young adults the two braved disease and drugs, madness and starvation… all in the heart of New York City. Lovers and artists and visionaries, the two were anything but ‘Just Kids’.

I am loving reading Just Kids. The world of Patti Smith seems at times almost surreal; the stuff of legends. Her encounters and exploits could fill many different lifetimes and she goes through things that I’ve never imagined having to face. At the same time, though, I feel as if I can relate to her. She moved away from her family, venturing into New York City with very little idea of what her future would hold. I sympathize with her longing for art and her wish to be a creative, creating soul. I feel for her struggle maintaining steady employment. I understand her love for Robert, and their loyalty to eachother through it all.

I think all of us can find part of ourselves in Just Kids. Its events took place years ago in the 60s and 70s, and the music, clothes, and politics were all different. One thing, however, never changes. We are all humans with human faults. We all struggle sometimes. We all face trying times.

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

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

Fire of Unknown Origin

Her voice is a funny old thing, holding a slight rasp to it yet still sounding smooth and calm like a beach pebble.  That is Patti Smith, punk artist and poet extraordinaire.  Her presence in the radio interview was that of a free-spirit. Her ideas were a work of art.

The interview pertained to her career and her relationship with her soul mate Robert Mapplethorpe. Both had a love for art, but it was Smith who touched fame first with the help of a photo taken by him.  Proof of their natural affinity was abundant – Smith’s first words of the man were of his rescue of her.  This particular rescue dated back to the first months of their relationship, where Mapplethorpe pretended to be Smith’s boyfriend to help her ward off the advances from her then-boss.

Smith wrote a song about death with a reference to Hotel Chelsea.  In the song, there is a plea from an individual for something of value back, for a rescue, almost. The title is called “Fire of Unknown Origin”, and it is unknown in that it is unpredictable because the prose of the lyrics are not typical and do not fit in the verse-verse-chorus-repeat model.

Interestingly, the Hotel Chelsea experienced cycles of death and life. Its first purpose was as a co-opt building. Then the H.C went bankrupt because the theatres around it relocated. In 1905 it reopened as a hotel, but quickly went back into bankruptcy. The Hotel Chelsea was finally repurchased by a group of wealthy men and managed as a hotel until the 1970s.

Hotel Chelsea

While listening to “Fire of Unknown Origin” I found it difficult to understand what Smith was saying during her songs, if only for the incoherence in her pronunciation of consonants. Nevertheless, it was stimulating to hear a hybrid of poetry and music. After all, it was her mission to “merge poetry and rock and roll, and to reach out to other disenfranchised people.”

-Megan P. Low