Venetian Red Bookshelf: Just Kids
Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.
By LIZ HAGER
Just Kids could be described as the story of Patti Smith’s five-year relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (first as lovers, then as friends), played out against the background of the post-folk, pre-punk, gritty downtown Manhattan of the 1970s. But this description doesn’t do full justice to the book, which is, by turns, a tender memoir evoking the exuberance and naiveté of youth (and of Smith); a Dickensian chronicle of a chaotic time and place, which nurtured many famous (and infamous) talents; and a poignant eulogy to a deep and lifelong love fueled by a shared passion for art (Smith and Mapplethorpe remained close friends until his death in 1987).
The “facts” of the Smith-Mapplethorpe story are well recorded. One needn’t read Just Kids for that, although Smith’s adept juggling of the many themes gives the book depth beyond the usual “kiss and tell” narratives.
It is Smith’s prose style that provides Just Kids with the wings to soar. Smith has a way of seamlessly weaving the banal with the profound, simultaneously grounding a scene in detail and elevating it to the realm of the prophetic. This is her signature poetry/song-writing style, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the book is a sneaky, sometimes quiet, always powerful and, ultimately, riveting read.
Smith arrived in New York in the summer of 1967, virtually penniless and alone, having been transformed by the revelation that “human beings create art.“
It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 31)
Actually, she encountered Mapplethorpe twice that summer. First, he simply pointed her to a place to crash. Though a brief encounter, the attraction was instantaneous and intense. Later, Mapplethorpe happened to be walking through St. Mark’s Square and rescued her from a date on the verge of going bad.
In the beginning, theirs was a life defined by near-destitution—scrounging for food and living in a string of truly grungy apartments. It’s no surprise the transformation of these spaces gives rise to their early collaborative work together.
By the time they met, Mapplethorpe had studied art formally at Pratt. He was already a confident soul with absolute clarity about becoming the rage of the art world. Smith was largely self-educated but
. . . longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their processes and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 12)
As their orbits merged, the mutual devotion to each other’s talent became lasting and unshakable.
Smith was Mapplethorpe’s soul mate and muse. In the early years she constantly suggested he move from collages to his own photographic work. When he did switch, she was the model in his early Poloroids. These were true collaborations from choice of set up to pose. Smith would appear in his work, as he moved to formal studio work and movies.
Mapplethorpe was the more self-possessed of the two, and Smith describes him as “looking for shortcuts.” “Why should I take the long road?” he wonders. The following passage is an illuminating one:
Robert’s great wish was to break into the world that surrounded Andy Warhol, though he had no desire to be part of his stable or to star in his movies. Robert often said he knew Andy’s game, and felt that if he could talk to him, Andy would recognize him as an equal. Although I believed he merited an audience with Andy, I felt any significant dialogue with him was unlikely, for Andy was like an eel, perfectly able to slither from any meaningful confrontation.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 116)
Robert Mapplethorpe, Cover of Witt, 1973, Poloroid photo
Mapplethorpe was always highly supportive of Smith’s work, pushing her to write and publish. She admits to being less confident of her own talents:
Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 65)
Over time, Smith’s creative force would be coaxed from her. In a poignant note, she writes of Mapplethorpes effect on her:
You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God.
Patti Smith, Just Kids p. 276
In 1969 the two moved to a tiny room in the Chelsea Hotel, a seminal move which ultimately set their respective careers on track.
A cast of greater and lesser characters tramp in and out of the Chelsea’s lobby. It was here that Smith and Mapplethorpe met many of the people who would have defining roles in their careers—Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Harry Smith, Sam Shepard, filmmaker Sandy Daley, Andy Warhol and members of the Entourage, Janis Joplin, Bob Neuwirth, Todd Rundgren, Jim Carroll—though Mapplethorpe also had a vibrant life outside the hotel.
The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. . . So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 112 and 113)
Encouraged into poetry readings and then musical performances, Smith was ultimately signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records 1975. Her 1978 song “Because the Night” (co-penned with Bruce Springsteen) made her famous, an irony that was not lost on Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe would climb to fame his own way, mostly along the rungs of high society. Under the auspices of John McKendry (Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Met), who was married to socialite Maxine de la Falaise, and later collector/curator/lover Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe began to show his photographs. Though he photographed many subjects, it was his male nudes and their often explicit evocation of gay sexuality that gained him notoriety.
Just Kids reports, but does not linger, on Mapplethorpe’s journey out of the closet. Though Mapplethorpe was an expert at hiding his orientation, it’s hard to believe the Smith of the early 1970s was naive enough not to recognize the outward signs of his inner life. Evoking his grounding in Catholicism, she reports:
Later he would say that the Church led him to God, and LSD led him to the universe. He also said that art led him to the devil, and sex kept him with the devil.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 63)
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)
Inevitably, melancholy hovers over the pages of Just Kids. The book evokes the promise, freedom and exuberance of youthful world in which, as Smith coins it “everything awaited.” But we know the adult world is coming—kids, careers, and ultimately death (AIDS). Both Smith and Mapplethorpe achieved their dreams of fame. One paid for it with his life.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1986
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)
Patti Smith reads from Just Kids
Youtube: The Photography of Robert Mapplethorpe
Patricia Morrisroe—Mapplethorpe: A Biography
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future
Victor Bokris and Roberta Bayley—Patti Smith: The Unauthorized Biography