By Patti Smith
HarperCollins ($27.00, 279 pp.)
“This one has the magic.” With this phrase Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe would collaboratively designate the successes in their lives. It could refer to his best photo in a contact sheet, the best of her poems, the best song, the best drawing, the best cheap clothes, the best studio or apartment, even the best lover for the other.
It also applies to Smith’s terrific new book “Just Kids.” Way more than a memoir, “Just Kids” is foremost a love story – but it is also a history, a guide to the arts of the 70’s, a tribute, even a fashion lesson. Smith covers so much ground with so much detail with such fresh language, humor, and observation that this may be her most significant work in an improbable life of significant achievements.
A tall, skinny waif of a girl from South Jersey, twenty years old and broke after her bus fare, Smith arrived in New York with only dreams and her mother’s gift of white wedgies and a fresh waitress uniform. “I drew, I danced, and I wrote poems. I was not gifted but I was imaginative… No one expected me. Everything awaited me.” But the friends she had hoped to stay with had moved, and she spent her first night on the stoop of their Brooklyn walk-up. This auspicious start proved to be only the first of many nights, weeks, even years of scrambling for food and a stable place to sleep.
One night in Tompkins Square Park, after a so-called science fiction writer had offered dinner in exchange for she knew not what, she was rescued by the beautiful Robert Mapplethorpe. He was tripping on acid but had it together enough to whisk her away from danger. They wandered the streets of the East Village and eventually stayed at a friend’s apartment, discovering they were a match – both aspiring to be artists of some sort, both shy and hungry, both readers – and becoming lovers.
It is this love match that is at the heart of “Just Kids”. It tells how together Smith and Mapplethorpe anticipated and fed each other’s needs, whether it was literally feeding and sheltering themselves or finding art supplies, cheap books and records, outrageous clothes, and an occasional subway ride to Coney Island. She got steady work at Scribner’s book shop and he made art. Then he would find a new cheap place to live in exchange for his cleaning and painting it while she wrote poems and sketched. They got by and finally finagled their way into the smallest room in the Chelsea Hotel.
The Chelsea is a storied hotel from that era. Many artists and musicians lived and died there; many reclusive crazies called it home; but no account captures this time in the late 60’s, early 70’s quite like Smith’s. When she and Mapplethorpe moved in, they started anew. “I left behind…rolls of canvas splashed in umber, pinks, and green, souvenirs of a gone ambition. I was too curious about the future to look back…I said good-bye to my stuff…There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”
Although the hotel was crawling with celebrities, Smith was less entranced than was Mapplethorpe, who had the greater ambition. Andy Warhol and his entourage of beautiful men and women beckoned. While Mapplethorpe explored his ambiguous sexuality, Smith was still finding her medium: words, music, or sketchpad – or all three. “I don’t even know what I’m doing, but I can’t stop doing it,” she writes. “I’m like a blind sculptor hacking away.”
Back at the Chelsen, she could inadvertently bump into Grace Slick in at the adjoining El Quixote restaurant or find herself in Joplin’s room, but she was hardly star-struck. “I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.”
Smith and Mapplethorpe vowed to support each other no matter what. Despite their drifting apart – he to a bevy of wealthy, gay patrons and she to Sam Shepard, among others – they were loyal and in love until the end. The times were heavy with the loss of their peers (e.g. Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Jones). Smith knew the risks. “[They were] taken down, the stardom they so desired just out of reach, tarnished stars falling from the sky….They were ahead of their time, but they didn’t live long enough to see the time they were ahead of.”
Finally, Mapplethorpe too went to a painful, premature death with Smith there at the end: “’Patti, did art get us?’ I looked away, not really wanting to think about it. ‘I don’t know, Robert. I don’t know.’ Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that. Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint.”
A sad end to an intensely loyal love had not, however, pre-empted artistic success. He lived long enough to see her poetry and music performances carry her to her own kind of sainthood, and she was there when famous galleries displayed his iconic photographs of her alongside those of himself.
There love was symbiotic. “Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph.” Perhaps neither would have made it alone. Smith’s “Just Kids” contains the moments of happy freedom as much as the moments of struggle and pain. It is a story of life lived in service to art, but a full life nonetheless – one that recognizes “that there is no pure evil, nor pure good, only purity.”
As Mapplethorpe’s personal things are auctioned after his death, she concludes: “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? I got over the loss of his desk and chair, but never the desire to produce a string of words more precious than the emeralds of Cortés.” With “Just Kids,” she has put that “string of words” in our hands, and it is indeed precious. “This one has the magic.”