I just finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, a memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, their coming of age in New York in the 70s, and their ambitions to be “artists.” I was touched by the story and thrilled with the descriptions of New York at that time, seemingly bursting with a confluence of artists, musicians, and writers.
The serendipity of Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s first meetings and genuine connection over time is quite remarkable. The influence each played in helping to create the artists they both became is very provocative, though I get a sense that Smith was helping Mappelthorpe more than the other way around, especially in the beginning. (She held several jobs to help pay for the rent for room and studio so Mapplethorpe could create. Much later, when Mappelthorpe begins his relationship with Sam Wagstaff, a rich patron, Mappelthorpe helps Smith in lots of financial ways.) As Patti Smith is one of my favorite singers (and Horses my favorite album) it was intriguing to see both she and Mapplethorpe before they find their way and before they become famous (before, in fact, Mappelthorpe picks up a camera and Smith picks up a guitar). Their innocent yet committed ambitions around art were compelling, yet it seemed they were more enamored with being “artists” rather than focused on what they, as artists, had to say. Perhaps this is the place where all young artists begin.
There are a lot of names in this book of the people at the cutting edge of culture: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Jim Carroll, Todd Rundgren, Grace Slick, Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Shephard, Bob Dylan, et al. Most of these names have walk-on parts, others are more developed in that they play a larger part in Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s lives. But these names also begin to feel a bit like reading People Magazine, sometimes too gratuitously used. Smith shares a meeting with Grace Slick–
Grace Slick got up and brushed past me. She was wearing a floor-length tie-dyed dress and had dark violet eyes like Liz Taylor.
“Hello,” I said, noticing I was taller.
“Hello yourself,” she said.
This is the first and last time Grace Slick is mentioned in the book and though I know its context is about how Patti Smith felt a “kinship” with all these well-known people without really knowing why at first, it feels a bit disingenuous. And I’m not sure how Patti Smith could have written this book without all the name dropping; this was the New York scene at the time, and the community around and in which she worked and socialized. She truly conveys the artistic and creative spirit of the Chelsea Hotel in this light. However, there were several times in the book, when the names were flying so fast and furious that I was confused who she was talking about, had to reread parts to clarify, or merely skimmed because it didn’t seem to have a lot to do with the main threads of the story. Smith is not name dropping for its own sake. She is sharing a real innocence about her amazement at being around all these famous artists. But this distracted from the core of her story, a paean to Mapplethorpe and their relationship. (Also distracting was her insistence on describing what she and Mappelthorpe and sometimes others wore—all the time. I know that clothes are important as signals to who one is and even what one’s politics may be, but the many, many, many descriptions of clothes interfered with the narrative.)
The first third of the book (about the background of their lives before they met and the establishment of their relationship in New York) and the end of the book are the most powerful. Mapplethorpe’s death due to AIDS was sad and poignant and a devastating reminder of all the bright lights who were taken by this disease. It is very clear in Smith’s writing how deeply she cared about him and how important he was in her life. The reader feels her warm affection and tenderness toward him. This book fulfills the promise she had made Mappelthorpe, that she would record the story of their special connection.
All through the book I held the image in my mind of seeing Patti Smith in concert in Chicago at the Aragon Ballroom in 1976. She was brash, assertive, wild, gender-bending, absolutely irreverent. Reconciling my fantasy of who she was with the woman who wrote this book (she is shocked at first at Mappelthorpe’s homosexuality, actually homosexuality in general; she doesn’t really do drugs; her gender politics seem a bit dated/traditional…) was challenging and eye-opening.
With its imperfections, this is still a good and quick read, a fascinating portrait of the seventies in New York through the lens of one of the more talented and riveting rock stars and her profound relationship with a cutting edge photographer and cultural icon.