Just Kids, by Patti Smith

I knew one day I would stop and he would keep on going, but until then nothing could tear us apart.

Just Kids is a memoir by Patti Smith, whose most famous soubriquet is “the godmother of punk”, about her romance and friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is mostly set in a New York City of the ‘60s and early ‘70s that no longer exists, an artistic subculture whose portrait makes it clear that American society suffered a debilitating, game-changing onset of cynicism and materialism from the 1970s onward. Given this, you might think that enjoying Just Kids requires a more-than-passing acquaintance with punk rock, bohemian romanticism, or Mapplethorpe’s photography. Fortunately, that’s not true. All you need to be touched and charmed by this book is half a heart.

Smith is a romantic, and her style remains utterly untouched by self-consciousness or irony. She describes her childhood, full of conspiracies and storytelling contests among her many siblings, as sincerely as I’ve ever read any account of childhood; the only real trauma she writes about is her friendship with a slightly older girl who was dying of leukaemia. Transfixed by the other girl’s pretty belongings, the young Smith waits until she’s asleep before stealing a pin from her jewellery box. In a reckoning so swift and Catholic that it feels like an outtake from Joyce’s Dubliners, the other girl dies two days later, and Smith, consumed with guilt and shame, is given all of her belongings.

She’s not the type to dwell on misery, though. Sometimes this means that Smith’s interiority isn’t clear—when she nurses Mapplethorpe back to health in the  Chelsea Hotel, for instance, she describes conditions of the utmost squalor and despair, yet her own reactions never really register in the observational prose—but most of the time it’s what enables her to get through life. She bears an illegitimate daughter at the age of nineteen, gives her up for adoption, and leaves teacher training college, feeling called to be an artist in New York City. There’s something extraordinary about her singlemindedness; the very idea of asserting that you are going to be an artist in New York is, by now, so profoundly clichéd that I felt inclined to roll my eyes, but Smith was and is completely sincere. There’s something beguilingly innocent about her conviction. She arrives in the city in the summer, and her friends at Pratt are less helpful than she had hoped; nothing daunted, she sleeps in Central Park for weeks, eats next to nothing, and is apparently quite content.

It’s Mapplethorpe who changes everything for her. The story of their meeting is like a fairytale: they encounter each other once (in the apartment of a friend), twice (at the bookstore where Smith finds a job, Mapplethorpe buys a Persian necklace that she’s long coveted for herself), three times (trying to extricate herself from a potentially unsavoury date, she recognizes him across the street and begs him to pretend to be her boyfriend). It’s that third time that does it; they walk around the city until three in the morning, talking, pouring out their hearts. Smith’s prose when she writes of that night is, perhaps, a little precious:

He responded that the drawing was symbolic of his own commitment to art, made on the same day. He gave it to me without hesitation and I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust. We looked at books on Dada and Surrealism and ended the night immersed in the slaves of Michelangelo.

But it’s a rare human indeed who can step outside of their own feelings about the first person they loved, and I suspect that Smith’s earnestness here reflects the general innocence of her time. They really were kids.

The flipside of innocence and childlike purity, of course, is vulnerability and naivete. It seems to have characterised the ‘60s, this sort of ridiculous sincerity, and I found myself struggling with it in Just Kids because my cultural context means that I see it as self-indulgent. Smith has a pot-induced dream, for instance, about the lost papers of Arthur Rimbaud being in a leather case underneath a tree in the Abyssinian desert, on the basis of which she plans a journey to Ethiopia to find these papers and publish them back in the States. Wisely, no bookshop or publishing house will give her an advance to do this, which, even in retrospect, she seems to find baffling. Likewise, she meets Jimi Hendrix on the stairs at a party and is subjected to his vision of hundreds of international musicians playing in a field—not playing the same thing, you understand, just playing their own songs—in a bid to find, amongst the cacophony, what Hendrix calls “the language of peace”. “You dig?” he asks her, at which point my eyeballs could control themselves no longer and floated unstoppably heavenwards in my skull.

Mapplethorpe remains a beautiful (that much is undeniable; the self-portraits he took are the kinds of things that make your heart shudder like a stalled car) yet ultimately unknowable and in some ways deeply selfish presence. While he and Smith are still sleeping together, he “hustles” for money to make their rent, but Smith and the reader both know that he’s also exploiting the excitement of coming to terms with his sexuality—which would be great if he wore a condom. As it is, he catches gonorrhoea, which has implications for Smith as well. Likewise, social capital is important for Mapplethorpe in a way that it never is for Smith (she tells us that she tends to eat with her hands, which is a pretty sweet confession). He loves rising in the galaxy of New York talent, making friends with the director of the Met, going to dinner parties on the Upper West Side; Smith is profoundly uncomfortable in that atmosphere, and Mapplethorpe never seems to notice or to address it with her. She writes, perhaps defensively, that he supported her work fully, but we never actually see that happening; she never writes a scene where he does so.

The ending, though—that affected even my leathery, cynical, millennial heart. Just before Patti leaves New York with her husband-to-be Fred Smith, Mapplethorpe photographs her for the cover of her first, and iconic, record Horses. Her writing is elevated to a stark loveliness from this point to the end of the book, and this made me want to cry:

The light was already fading. He had no assistant. We never talked about what we would do, or what it would look like. He would shoot. I would be shot.

I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That was all.

[…] I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra-style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.

“It’s back,” he said. He took a few more shots. “I got it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

He took twelve pictures that day.

Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. “This one has the magic,” he said.

When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.

Smith lives in Detroit and has a son; she is pregnant with her second child, a girl, when she learns Mapplethorpe has been diagnosed with AIDS. She and her husband, Fred, fly and drive back and forth between New York and Detroit over the next year. It’s a long goodbye, although for a while the reality of this doesn’t hit any of them. When Mapplethorpe’s long-time patron and partner Sam Wagstaff dies, though, and then with the death of Andy Warhol, something changes:

“He wasn’t supposed to die,” Robert cried out, somewhat desperately, petulantly, like a spoiled child. But I could hear other thoughts racing between us.

Neither are you.

Neither am I.

If that doesn’t send cold shivers of recognition down your spine, I don’t know what will.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Mapplethorpe and Smith were famous, or that they were artists, or that they knew famous people. What matters—the real reason this book was written—is that they were two wildly magnetic people who loved each other, and despite the quotation at the top of this article, it wasn’t Smith who stopped and Mapplethorpe who kept on going; it was, with sad and awful irony, the other way round.

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6 thoughts on “Just Kids, by Patti Smith

  1. Been avoiding this book because there’s too much hype but you may have tipped me over the edge. Maybe a good companion with City on Fire, set in fictional 1970s New York?

    • Yes, possibly! I’m not a huge fan of Smith’s prose (it feels precious/stilted for the vast majority of the book), but the ending is just impossibly seductive and sad. Also, I might need more of a grounding in her work and in the era to appreciate it fully–but the ’60s and ’70s have always given me cold sweats, so maybe it’s just not the right fit. I’ll definitely be looking for Horses, though, and for Mapplethorpe’s photos.

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