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Critic's Notebook: Patti Smith on friendship and creative ferment

August 21, 2010 |  7:30 am

Just kids Nostalgia is never more suspect than when the person romantically harking back is too young to have experienced the era firsthand. But reading Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids," a tender recollection of her coming of age as a singer-songwriter alongside her artistic soul mate, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I couldn't help envying the cultural ferment of the late '60s-early '70s and wondering how we could recapture some of the dirty magic.

The generation that followed was my lucky lot. No swinging '60s or hippie '70s for me. The Reagan-Bush years — marked by trickle-down economics, two epidemics (AIDS and crack cocaine) and crime rates that make the threat of terrorism today look like a summer holiday — provided the inhospitable background to my creative loafing. Bob Dylan and his ilk took a backseat to the last days of disco and the neon flare of New Wave. "Dynasty" and "Dallas" rode the crest of the Nielsen wave, Andrew Lloyd Webber established a beachhead on Broadway, and wanting to be an artist meant staying in university. I ducked into the Yale School of Drama for several years and came out, of all blasted things, a critic.

Today, my peers, armed with advanced degrees in the arts, run MFA programs, help guide philanthropic foundations, and a dwindling few even serve as cultural arbiters at newspapers and magazines. Before moving to L.A., I was on the faculty of Brooklyn College's MFA program in theater. If I were still there, I'd make "Just Kids" required reading. Click here to keep reading this Sunday Arts & Books Critic's Notebook.

— Charles McNulty

Photo: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Photo booth, Forty-second Street, 1969, from the book "Just Kids" by Patti Smith. Credit: Harper Collins Publishers


When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were 'Just Kids'