It wasn’t always that way. She first arrived in the city at 20 years old, an aspiring artist with a passion for French poets and American rock ‘n’ roll. Smith recounts those years, and in particular her relationship with the provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in a new book called Just Kids.
“Sometimes [people] seem to think I came out of the womb, you know, cursing, with an electric guitar,” Smith tells NPR’s Deborah Amos. “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.”
Smith met the 21-year-old Mapplethorpe on her first day in the city, and Just Kids is the story of their romance, friendship and creative bond. She and Mapplethorpe met in the summer of 1967, both children of religious upbringings, both influenced by ideas about art and outsider culture. Smith writes of staying up late to paint and listen to records in their shared apartment on Hall Street in Brooklyn, but when they first became friends, they were so poor, they sometimes slept on the street.
“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,” Smith says. “So, all of my role models, whether it was the disciples, or John the Baptist or Arthur Rimbaud, slept under the stars.”
Smith dismisses the notion that the godmother of punk reading the Bible might strike some as a surprise.
“I don’t know why,” she says. “The very first word on my very first record is ‘Jesus.’ “
The line, in its entirety, is, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Smith says the negation doesn’t much matter.
“I still invoke him as an entity to reckon with.”
Photo by Gerard Malanga