Written by Patti Smith, $27; HarperCollins Books; 304 pages
"What will happen to us?" I asked.
"There will always be us," he answered.
Typical words spoken by typical lovers in the rush of a typical young romance, but in this case those words were actually prophetic.
Patti Smith asked the question and her lover Robert Mapplethorpe answered, but neither of them had a clue as to how right they were and on such an immense level. It was at the close of the 1960s in the seediness of the dank Allerton Hotel in N.Y.C. and neither of them had the slightest clue that they would reshape not only their world but the whole world with their art. Read more story below....
It's a bit of a head-spinner to embrace Smith's new memoir Just Kids from the standpoint of the present; it's almost impossible to picture Smith and Mapplethorpe as unsure artistically and sexually [ him, anyway ] or to have such a naive perspective on the world and life. Just Kids works on three levels simultaneously: how the two of them evolved into the artists that they became, and as documents on time and place.
New York City and the years 1968-1973 were that time and place where American rock culture evolved into what it would ever be, all in one nutty, maddening, atomic smash up. The Velvet Underground, Bette Midler, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones, Paul Simon, The New York Dolls, Billy Joelthe list could go on and on. As a document of an era that splintered off into several alter eras [ disco, punk, waveall of it started at this time and at this place ] , Just Kids has a nonstop parade of personalities whirling through it [ Aleister Crowley, Jimi, Janis, Dylan, International Velvet, Genet, Manson, Edie Sedgwick, Thomas Wolfe, Viva, Arbus, Candy Darling, Warhol, Ondine, Clive Davis ] with a number of memorable cameos [ Grace Slick, Allen Ginsberg, Johnny Winter, Wayne County, Bob Neuwirth, Sam Shepard, Jim Carroll, Tom Verlaine, Todd Rundgren ] like nuclear-powered pinballs bouncing about in an arcade.
The first achievement of the book though is that it reveals how fully both Mapplethorpe and Smith became their art. It's hard to see either of them as the innocents at the start of the book or imagine the spontaneous romance of their first meeting. How they appeared later on [ she as a chanting, furious high-priestess-punk-rock-poet-bard and he as a slightly dangerous, oddly beautiful lord of black leather and darkness ] seemed so complete that it's impossible to see them for what they really were: two kids on their own.
What attracted them and held them together was twofold: their art [ though it actually took them years to get into the mediums that they would rule ] and their understanding of each other. When Smith talks of Mapplethorpe's curly brown hair and green eyes she forces us to see him as the beautiful boy that she saw. When we see his early portraits of her she has a crisp, uncomplicated simplicity that makes her almost unrecognizable. Obviously, we don't know either of them like we thought we did.
At one point when Mapplethorpe starts to realize that he's gay it's not only a surprise to her but to him as well. But though they swiftly end up with different partners heading in different directions, their bond stays unquestionably strong and fluid right up until his AIDS-related death in 1989 at age 42. Of course when they parted romantically she wasn't a rock and roll star and he wasn't the most controversial if not famous photographer in the world. And that's the fascination of the book, the odd link between them that onlookers couldn't fathom.
Toward the end of the book Smith ruminates, "To me, Robert and I were irrevocably entwined, like Paul and Elizabeth, the sister and brother in Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles. We played similar games, declared the most obscure objects treasure and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion."
At the close of the book Smith reveals that Just Kids is a promise that she made to Mapplethorpe to "one day write our story." I'm glad that she did it, not so much because it documents an already mythical time with mythical personalities [ having breakfast with Ginsberg, whiskey with Johnny Winter, or Kris Kristofferson sitting in a hotel-room floor singing his "Me and Bobby McGee" to an enchanted Janis Joplin for the first time ] , but because in telling this story she let us see who she and Mapplethorpe really were.