DEBORAH AMOS, Host:
Patti Smith walked into our New York studios in a knit cap and scuffed snow boots. She was by herself, an unusual New York rock and roll celebrity.
AMOS: People say hello to me. I mean, sometimes the sanitation truck goes by and says, hey Patti...
AMOS: You know, that's when it's cool. You know, if the postman is saying hello to you, then I feel like, wow, that's something special.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")
AMOS: No one recognized her when she first came to the city, 20 years old, an aspiring artist with a passion for French poets and American rock and roll. Patti Smith recounts those years in a new book called "Just Kids," for those who know her music and those who don't.
AMOS: Sometimes they seem to think, you know, I came out of the womb, you know, cursing with an electric guitar, you know, so I think it's important for people to realize that we were all young, all naive, and also we had lived in a time that had magic.
AMOS: It's a very romantic book in some ways.
AMOS: It was a romantic time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEGIE")
AMOS: (Singing) I just don't know what to do tonight.
AMOS: The time - the early 1970s, before Patti Smith recorded her first album, ushering in the era of punk rock, before the great love of her life, Robert Mapplethorpe, made his mark as a photographer with sexually provocative images. They met on her first day in the city, and the book is the story of their romance and creative bond - young struggling artists, sometimes so poor they slept on the street.
AMOS: You know, I wasn't a stranger to hard times. I used to read the Bible. Well, I still do, but when I was young I read the Bible quite a bit, and by Christ's example, he embraced poverty. So all of my role models, whether it was the disciples or John the Baptist or Arthur Rimbaud, all, you know, slept under the stars.
AMOS: I think that it's a surprise to hear the godmother of punk say that she reads the Bible.
AMOS: Well, I don't know why. The very first word on my very first record is Jesus. So obviously...
AMOS: Didn't die for my sins. (Laughing)
AMOS: But I still invoke him as an entity to reckon with.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")
AMOS: (Singing) Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine, meltin' in a pot of thieves, wild card up my sleeve...
AMOS: So much of what happens in your life is chance. You meet Robert Mapplethorpe and you become a couple almost immediately. What was it that linked the two of you together?
AMOS: We were really two of a kind. We were even physically, you know, we were both very lanky. We were both outsiders. We fulfilled a role for each other. As it says in the book, we woke up knowing that we were no longer alone.
AMOS: You both wanted to be artists, and I have a sense reading your book that neither one of you knew exactly what art you were going to pursue. You write that you actually said to him you ought to be a photographer.
AMOS: Well, no, I didn't say that. I said you should take your own photographs. I didn't mean for him to become a photographer.
AMOS: But he did.
AMOS: Yes, he did. Once he started taking pictures, he just fell in love with photography.
AMOS: This book is such a tribute to that relationship, and there's a moment when he is realizing that he is a gay man.
AMOS: Well, really when I met Robert, we were unformed. That's why I called the book "Just Kids." I really want people to comprehend that we were young. It took a while to become who we evolved into. And I think for Robert it was a struggle. At a certain point it meant that he had to make a choice.
AMOS: Did you feel left out by that, when he made that choice?
AMOS: I knew that I could never have a relationship with him, but of course as time went by I realized that what Robert and I had no one else would have - male or female.
AMOS: By the end of the book, you meet Robert again. He has AIDS at this time. You both know what is going to happen. Was it difficult to write about so much pain and loss?
AMOS: Oh, it's very painful. I mean, I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write our story. And it took me 20 years, but I kept my promise.
AMOS: Would you read the opening section of the book, which is the most heartrending?
AMOS: The phone rang and I rose to answer. It was Robert's youngest brother, Edward. He told me that he had given Robert one last kiss from me as he had promised. I stood motionless, frozen, then slowly as in a dream returned to my chair. At that moment, Tosca began the great aria "Vissi d'arte." I have lived for love. I have lived for art. I closed my eyes and folded my hands. Providence determined how I would say goodbye.
AMOS: Is there music that comes out of that loss?
AMOS: (Singing) Little emerald bird wants to fly away. If I cup my hand, could I make him stay, little emerald soul, little emerald eye, little emerald bird, we must say goodbye.
AMOS: That's beautiful. Thank you very much, Patti Smith.
AMOS: Patti Smith's new book is called "Just Kids." Read an excerpt and see photos of Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at npr.org.
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