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'Just Kids,' by Patti Smith

JUST KIDS, by Patti Smith. Ecco, 279 pp., $27.

They really were just kids, two of the countless young escapees from American families who scrounged like street urchins in the anything-can-happen New York of 1967.

She was the beanpole girl in the long raincoat, who loved the French symbolists, who ran away from teachers college, then from factory work, because she believed she'd been called to be an artist - like Bernadette from the movie, only not to sainthood.

He was the beautiful altar boy with tousled curls from Floral Park, who loved Michelangelo and stringing beaded necklaces for his mother. He ran away from ROTC and commercial art school because he craved the freedom and adventure of the art world.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe rescued each other one night in the East Village and, as she remembers it, "mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust."

"Just Kids," her memoir of their lengthy love affair and lifelong friendship, is a remarkable book - sweet and charming and many other words you wouldn't expect to apply to a punk-rock icon and the notorious photographer of politically inflammatory homoerotica.

They grew apart, physically, in the '80s. "I was asleep when he died," is the first sentence in the foreword to their story. Smith was living in Detroit with her musician-husband and child when Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 - months before his work became synonymous with the culture wars and attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. But she had called the hospital for one more good night and listened to his breathing through the phone. As she tenderly describes the relationship in one chapter heading, they went "Separate Ways Together."

"Just Kids" is both the story of a bond and a sparkling window on the raggedy, tumultuous forces on the bridge from the beat generation to '70s pop, fashion-art and glam-rock. One never suspects Smith of dropping names when she describes the Warhol demimonde at the round table in the backroom at Max's Kansas City. Or when Jimi Hendrix befriends her on the stairs when she is too shy to enter a party. Or when Allen Ginsberg gives her change to buy a cheese sandwich at the automat, only to be disappointed when he realizes she's a girl.

Some of the best memories are from the heyday of the Hotel Chelsea, where legions of artists bartered their work for rent and "everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world." Patti and Robert landed in this haven just as the scrounging and the lice had lost their romance. She encouraged him toward photography, he urged her to put her poetry to music.

They thrived at the Chelsea until the scene got ugly, with pimps and thefts, and they moved to their own space. Still, she did enjoy getting back there during her months with Sam Shepard - whom she originally believed was a drummer named Slim Shadow. Shepard bought her a 1931 Gibson guitar and taught her the secret of improvisation: "It's like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another."

Mapplethorpe began supplementing his income, and his sexual restlessness, as a hustler. Smith couldn't relate to his increasing appetite for rough trade, though she was more comfortable with his sexual duality than with his appetite for high society. She describes him as "more Dionysian than satanic, embracing freedom and heightened experience." Meanwhile, she was working "to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll."

Smith's style is as influenced by Rimbaud and Baudelaire as by Bob Dylan and Mickey Spillane. She doesn't fear occasional leaps into the florid abyss, such as: "We had ventured out like Maeterlinck's children seeking the bluebird and were caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences."

But her understanding of her soul-mate's controversial work is invaluable. "Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity and enviable nobility. . . . He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it."

Toward the end, he asked her, "Patti, did art get us?" If it did, this book is a guide to appreciating what was gained in return.

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