New York in the seventies must have been an amazing place. Artists, playwrights, poets and rock stars all knocking together, all skint, all committed to creating great work. Among those bright young stars struggling to shine were Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is Smith’s poetic, mythic telling of their story.
Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight.
As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken, it was just mutually understood.
It’s an impossibly romantic account of their first night together – a wordless, spiritual communion, a shining knight in armour, staying awake all night together and then falling asleep in each other’s arms. This spirit of fairy-tale romance pervades the book, which is suffused with a dreamlike atmosphere, as though Smith and Mapplethorpe were living an eerie, blessed existence.
What saves Just Kids from suffocating through schmaltziness is the harsh reality woven through. Before the Chelsea, there is a grim stay at the Hotel Allerton, full of ‘collective misery and lost hopes, forlorn souls who had fouled their lives’, when Robert suffers the pain of gonorrhoea. They both endure acute poverty and illness – Patti resorts to supplementing their lettuce soup and stale doughnuts with stolen steaks from a butcher. She writes of her distress when, having saved the fifty-five cents for her favourite sandwich at a local café, she found it had gone up in price by ten cents so she could no longer afford it. Luckily Allen Ginsberg happened to be there to help her out. He bought her the sandwich and stood her a coffee too. They sat down together and fell into conversation until:
He leaned forward and looked at me intently. “Are you a girl?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Is that a problem?”
He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”
I got the picture immediately.
“Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?”
“No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”
The pages are rich with priceless exchanges and encounters like this – with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Salvador Dali (who told her she was like ‘a crow, a gothic crow’) to name just a few. Perhaps it borders on name-dropping tedium, but Smith writes with such sincerity that you can’t help but feel she’s just trying to render an accurate picture of what her life was like and these happen to be the people who populated her cityscape.
The saddest strand that is woven through – Patti’s black ribbon against her white shirt – is death. Smith reflects, when she first enters the coveted back room at Max’s Kansas City and looks around ‘at everyone bathed in the blood light’, that ‘few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation’. Deaths abound, but none is sadder than Robert Mapplethorpe’s, which opens and closes the book. The last pages of the book had me in tears. Towards the end, they meet in LA for Mapplethorpe to take a photograph of Smith, now pregnant by her husband, for the cover of her album. Mapplethorpe is very ill from AIDS but ‘somehow he marshalled his energies and took the picture’:
Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.
It was a simple photograph. My hair is braided like Frida Kahlo’s. The sun is in my eyes. And I am looking at Robert and he is alive.
“We never had any children,” he said ruefully.
“Our work was our children.”
Just Kids is a chronicle not just of an exciting time and place, but of a loving, supportive, creative and utterly unique relationship. Wildly, childishly romantic it may be, but so sincere and beautiful is Smith’s writing that you can’t help but feel she did share a deep wordless bond with Mapplethorpe, that they really were meant to find each other, they were in some way blessed. “Patti, nobody sees as we do,” said Mapplethorpe. It is them versus the world and here is their struggle – poor, ill, failing, yet bound together, happy in each other and ecstatic in each other’s work.
I meant to read Just Kids while I was staying with friends in New York, but ended up not beginning it until I got on the plane to go home. By then it was too late to wander the haunts of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe – the streets and cafes, the bars and of course the Chelsea Hotel – their New York, which is recorded in the book as precisely as Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses. From what I saw of New York when I was there, however, their city is gone. Theirs was a world preoccupied with talent, art and genius, not the dream of money and designer clothes which seems to preside over the city now.
Finishing it on this rainy Monday morning back in London, crying into my coffee at the heartbreaking ending, I’m left with sad nostalgia for their explosive, vibrant world and all those artists who sacrificed their lives to it. Yet, it has also left me feeling inspired and all the more determined to succeed with my own work. Sure I’m no Patti Smith but, like the younger her, I work in a bookshop, I love anchovy sandwiches and I can certainly empathise with her struggle to write and stay true to her art. I’m sure that most artists, writers or musicians at the dawn of their careers will only take heart from her story, and find in it nourishment to bolster their strength for the tough struggle onwards.
Nostalgia and sadness for what is lost, balanced by inspiration and courage for one’s own life. These are exactly the feelings that should be conjured by a truly remarkable memoir.