LOS ANGELES — “Just Kids,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction on Wednesday night, is a reminder that Patti Smith has always had more than making records on her mind. Such a sensibility has defined her work since her debut album “Horses” came out in 1975, with its inexplicable mix of the garage and the atelier.
Smith was a poet; Rolling Stone said so, while reporting on her connection to Allen Ginsberg, or that Bob Dylan had been seen attending one of her shows.
But even more, this was clear from the vocal lines that swooped above the sonic thrash of “Horses,” the lyrics that pushed the music in directions no one expected it to go. Smith asserted it from the very first moments of the record, when, over Richard Sohl’s fluid piano chording, she intoned her opening benediction: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
Smith, of course, started out as a writer, releasing small press editions of her poetry (“Seventh Heaven,” “Witt,” “The Night,” “Ha! Ha! Houdini”) throughout the 1970s. Her first major collection of poetry, “Babel,” appeared in 1978; more recently, she has published “The Coral Sea” (1996) and “Auguries of Innocence” (2005), which takes its title from the work of William Blake.
Indeed, her initial foray into music came at her first reading, in February 1971. “I did it for poetry,” she writes in “Just Kids.” “I did it for Rimbaud, and I did it for Gregory (Corso). I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.”
Whether or not that’s a valid concept is something people have long debated about Smith’s work, but for me, it suggests how porous are the boundaries between the arts. Somewhere in a box of old tapes, I have a recording of Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye performing “Fire of Unknown Origin” at that reading; it’s rough, one voice and one guitar, a little uncertain in places as if they’re not quite sure what they’re doing, but also full of a soaring sense of possibility.
“Just Kids” is all about that, a book that wears its possibility on its sleeve. A loving look back at the earliest days of Smith’s art life, it also traces her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42.
Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers before he came out; after that, they were roommates, confidantes, best friends. Their story is their own, of course, but also reflective of anyone who ever moved into some marginal neighborhood to be a poet or a painter, who ever gave over his or her experience to creativity.
This notion, of a life consecrated to art, has become the stuff of cliche as we increasingly allow our dreams to be commodified: Where are the new bohemias, the new Williamsburgs or Echo Parks?
If “Just Kids” has a message, however, it’s that bohemia exists within us, that the only imperative of the artist is to create. Halfway through the book, Smith recalls a conversation with Corso, who, during a visit to the loft she shared with Mapplethorpe, noticed a crucifix embellished with the phrase “memento mori.”
“It means ‘Remember we are mortal,’ said Gregory, ‘but poetry is not,’ ” Smith writes, and in that moment, we get a glimpse of exactly what we’re dealing with, of how much everything means to her.
In a certain sense, this is the flaw of the book — it’s a bit wide-eyed, a bit naive, bestowing sainthood a bit too easily on figures such as Corso (a great poet, to be sure, although I mostly recall him as a disruptive drunk).
But then again, why not, especially in a culture such as this one, which deifies celebrity and money and any number of other cynical pursuits? Compared with that, art itself seems naive, which is, in Smith’s view, what distinguishes it and makes it pure.
“When I was a clerk at Scribner’s bookstore,” she said in her acceptance speech on Wednesday, “I always dreamed of writing a book of my own. When I had to unpack the winners of the National Book Awards and put them on the shelf, I used to wonder what it would feel like to win one. Thank you very much for letting me find out.”
There is, in such a statement, something vulnerable and guileless, as could be said of virtually everything Smith has ever done. It’s as true of “Just Kids” as it is of “Horses” or “Easter” or “Radio Ethiopia” — those transformative albums that sought to blend verse and guitar fury, that merged metaphysics with garage rock, that collapsed the boundaries between high and low.
Three and a half decades later, Smith is still at it, and if I no longer believe in rock ‘n’ roll’s power to transform us, I remain committed to the elusive soul of art.
So chalk one up for the good guys, for the poets and the dreamers of whom Smith has always been a part.