When twenty-year-old beatnik Patti Smith first moved to New York with Rimbaud’s Illuminations in her pocket, she fell in love with a boy named Robert Mapplethorpe. Later she would become a rock star, he a provocative photographer who aestheticized the gay male body. But in the summer of 1967 he was an art student in hippie love beads, she a college dropout hoping to become a poet.
Two penniless seekers arrive in the city, meet, and vow to devote their lives to beauty. “Just Kids” is not a rock memoir so much as it is an irresistible story of bohemian partnership. The enormous appeal of Smith’s book—which in America was both a bestseller and a literary success, winning the National Book Award—lies in how it abandons all celebrity cynicism and takes us to the place where art begins.
They became famous separately, not together. Patti Smith (1946) released her first album, Horses, in 1975. It and her three subsequent albums were extremely influential, as much for their message and her persona as for the music. “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be,” she sang, and she wore ripped T-shirts and projected a wild, almost mystical charisma. In 1979 she abruptly left the stage and settled down in Detroit with musician Fred “Sonic” Smith, with whom she had two children. She returned to performing after his death in 1994.
Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) is best known for his portraits, his stylized, black-and-white male and female nudes, and his graphic pictures of the gay S&M scene. In his self-portraits he played with gay imagery, portraying himself as a sailor, a leather boy, or a pretty androgyne. In 1990 some of his photographs, labeled “obscene,” touched off a public controversy.
But when Mapplethorpe and Smith first moved in together, they were so poor they often couldn’t afford a whole meal: at Coney Island, he got the hotdog, she ate the sauerkraut. And they had other troubles, too. Smith was mourning the baby she had just given up for adoption. (She swears by Joan of Arc and her newborn child that she will make amends by “making something of herself.”) And Mapplethorpe was gay, though he wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge it.
Still, Smith writes, “One cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together. We would get lost for hours. His ability to concentrate for long periods infected me, and I learned by his example, working side by side.”
Mapplethorpe loved in Smith the dreaminess, tomboyishness, and intelligence that the other kids had hated during her southern New Jersey childhood. He served as the first listener for her poetry and encouraged her to read it to an audience—the beginning of her performing career. It’s still rare for a woman artist to find a man who will support her and acknowledge her as his equal. To watch them performing the magical act of drawing out each other’s creative powers is deeply moving. Their love couldn’t last, but that didn’t matter. “I knew that one day I would stop and he would keep on going, but until then, nothing could tear us apart.”
When the two moved into the Chelsea Hotel, at the center of New York’s bohemian scene, in 1969, they were still a couple, although by then they both knew about Mapplethorpe’s sexuality. At the Chelsea, Smith got to know artists and performers from Janis Joplin to William Burroughs; Allen Ginsberg tried to pick her up, thinking she was a good-looking boy. Singer and producer Bobby Neuwirth, playwright Sam Shepard, and punk poet Jim Carroll were among Smith’s many lovers, friends and allies.
She and Mapplethorpe slept their way up, and so did everyone else, in a time and place where looks, love affairs, talent, and artistic persona were all inextricably mixed. It was part of what they had to do to create themselves—selves they could use in their art. In her performance and his self-portraits, they showed the way to new and necessary ways of being. She was a female Keith Richards in a man’s shirt and uncombed hair, he a gay man full of artistic machismo.
Smith ends the book in 1975, when her career was just getting started and Mapplethorpe, not a lover now but still a close friend, took the famous cover photo for Horses. Their paths had already begun to diverge. She always loved his work but was shocked by his S&M photos: “I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality….At times he seemed to be driving himself into a darker, more dangerous place.” An epilogue brings them back together just before Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS at the age of forty-two.
Smith has said before in interviews that her friend’s essence lay not in the life of sexual excess that he wound up leading, but in his artistic calling. “What does it mean to be called?…What kind of life does one have being called?” It’s this she’s tried to capture in “Just Kids,” and it’s here that she most brilliantly succeeds. In the process, she gives us a Patti Smith—passionate lover of poetry, acute observer of life—who’s more appealing, and more necessary, than ever.
Trouw, April 7, 2012