Just Kids, Patti Smith’s beautiful book about her youth with Robert Mapplethorpe, who she calls “the artist of my life,” is a celebration, an elegy, a memoir, and a fascinating slice of life of New York City from the late ’60s and ’70s. It’s also a study of two very different artists, with very different sensibilities.
Patti was very bohemian. She came from a poor background, with a loving family. She never finished college, but was well-read, especially in Symbolist poetry and her hero, Arthur Rimbaud. Patti spent most of her 20s trying to find herself. She wasn’t focused on being a star, but an artist. Generous of spirit, she wanted to at first be a muse, then an artist in her own right. Seemingly having little or no ego, she wanted everyone she met to succeed. She must have had a healthy ego to become a rock star, but it never seems to be of a competitive nature. She was the quintessential hippie.
Robert, on the other hand, was obsessed with becoming a successful artist, a star, from the get-go. He was also willing to do whatever it would take to make the big time —hanging out at the right places, hustling, befriending the rich and famous. He wanted to be as big, or bigger, than Andy Warhol. When Patti met him he was already a serious artist, with a strong work ethic, secure in his own sensibility and the themes he wanted to explore. He was less secure in his persona, his sexuality, and how he presented himself to the world. Or maybe it wasn’t that we was less secure, but he was just less forthright.
Both kids grew up with fairly strict religious backgrounds, but their experiences with the church had different effects on their lives and work. In Patti it seemed to deepen her work and give her a place to start from — especially when she could pray her own way, “I was relieved when I no longer had to mouth the words If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could instead say what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed … mouthing long letters to God.” Mapplethorpe may never had made peace with his Catholicism, which was partially responsible for his at-first hidden sexuality: “His dual nature troubled me, mostly because I feared it troubled him. … His Catholic preoccupation with good and evil reasserted itself, as if he had to choose one over the other. He had broken from the Church, now it was breaking within him.”
Robert was the perfect boyfriend and lover for Patti — for a short time. She may not have cottoned on for a while to why they drifted apart physically, but he did encourage her creatively, and while maybe not her true love(r), he was undoubtedly her soul mate. Patti slept on stoops and in Washington Square Park when she first arrived without a cent in New York City in the mid-’60s. She experienced first-hand the effect drugs had on her friends and idols. She was in the middle of a whirlwind of unrest and change, but she was still a naive kid from the suburbs. The early deaths of ’60s musical superstars and the more public emergence of gay literary and cultural figures like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were a part of her day-to-day life. Patti was young and naive, but she was also a part of her time. She might not have been so oblivious to Robert’s sexual orientation or as pure in her artistic pursuits if her story took place twenty years later. Patti’s was a different time and a different New York than today, but many young people did and still do have the New York experience Robert did, willing to do anything in order to become a star in whatever art form they are pursuing — painting, music, acting.
The Chelsea Hotel was their Montmartre, their source and hotbed of creativity. For every young artist, young person, there is a time and place that is almost sacred. It’s where and when they found their true peers, had their first deep personal and artistic experiences, were independent. For Patti it was the Chelsea Hotel. While she lived there with Robert she met her idols (Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs), contemporaries (Sam Shepard, Todd Rundgren) and really felt a part of something. She watched from afar so many of her idols die — Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison. No matter how many deaths of young artists send her in a tailspin and reminded her of her hero Rimbaud, she and Robert never considered it could happen to one of them.
Patti brings that time and her experience of being a young artist in the late ’60s and ’70s to life. She has a real sense of New York history, and when she mentions that she went to a club to do a reading of her poetry she also mentions that the building once was once a saloon frequented by Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady, or some other historical figure and anecdote. As much as things change in the city, its history is constant and pervades.
Patti may not have wanted to acknowledge how her relationship with Robert had changed, or even how others perceived their relationship, but she was the first to realize that she needed something else, something more. No matter how different Robert’s goals were, or how far they drifted apart, Patti never judges, she just loves. And you get a sense that Robert, even if he was a little jealous or disapproving of her latest boyfriend, also never judged her. They encouraged each other, egged each other on. She told him, “You should take your own pictures,” when he complained that images he cut out of men’s magazines just weren’t right for his latest collage. He told her that she should sing songs, not just write and read her poetry. They are true to each other. Peas in a pod. They practically lived in each other’s pockets for eight years.
They eventually must grow apart, their art and their lives diverging. Patti started to find success with her band and went on tour. Back in New York, with the help of a wealthy lover and patron, Robert concentrated fully on his photography, and imbued all his subject matter, whether it was a stunning flower, socialite, or naked male torso, with an exacting, brutal elegance. Patti may not always have related to his subject matter, but she understood and appreciated why he did. “Robert was not a voyeur … he wasn’t taking pictures for the sake of sensationalism … he never felt his underground world was for everybody.”
The book ends with their last days and conversations, as Mapplethorpe died of AIDs in 1989. It’s clear that he will always be important for Smith. She took a vow to protect him when they were just kids and she is still taking care of him, eloquently sharing his legacy through her evocative memories and stories.