I sobbed my way through the final pages of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It’s a reaction I’ve not had since reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and the novelisation of My Girl before it. In many ways, Smith grasps romance in the same elegiac and breathtaking manner as the former (I’ll reserve all judgements on the latter to my 13-year-old self). A poet before becoming a household name rock n’ roller, Smith’s poetry finds its way into the prose of this tender and elegant romance – between her and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her and art, and her and life.
In the summer of 1967 Smith left her family and the outskirts of Philly for New York, adamant that everything awaited her. In Mapplethorpe, that much was true – he was to become her lover, best friend and muse. When they met the two were 20, desperately poor and tremendously inspired. Just Kids follows that inspiration as it evolved into the oeuvre of two important artists.
Taking its name from a mistaken encounter where an older couple openly marvelled at the two, thinking them artists amid New York’s bohemia, Just Kids is as much about Mapplethorpe and Smith as lovers as it is about them as artists. In fact, the beauty in this tale is that love and art are intertwined – for Smith, Mapplethorpe was ‘the artist of [her] life’, with Mapplethorpe himself being her favourite of his works.
Smith’s appreciation of all that surrounded her is itself a tale of love. Her unabashed passion for beauty and truth in art seems matched only by Mapplethorpe’s, as the two discovered the frames of reference that would inform their work into the future – a young Mapplethorpe modelled himself on Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, while Smith’s own influences came from life lived – the places and people she embraced.
These stories are marked by history, place and art. Smith’s calendar couples the dates of her strongest memories with the happenings of her world – the bombing of Guernica; the deaths of John Coltrane, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix – and she maps out her life through significant journeys to Rimbaud’s hometown, Philadelphia’s Joan of Arc statue, the nightspot Max’s Kansas City and New York itself.
In the same way, this book is littered with references to personalities from the era – so much so that a friend of mine spoke of reading the book as a guilty pleasure. It’s not. Bobby Neuwirth, Warhol, Harry Smith, playwright Sam Shepard – they make you, the reader, a flâneur in Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s world. Smith doesn’t need these names to prop her up – they contextualise this story and create an overwhelming sense of love, respect and community.
As it’s a biography, it’s okay to ruin the end. The last chapter records something we discover in the foreword – Robert Mapplethorpe’s death. In their final conversation Mapplethorpe asked Smith to write their story, and this book is it. In glorious detail, Smith has crafted their shared history out of poetry and place, and in doing so has created not just a biography for fans, but a celebration of passion, art and being young.
Eliza Sarlos lives in Sydney and works in music, makes radio and occasionally writes words – mostly at fyiordie.com.