Ever wondered what is was like to be a hip New York City artist in the late 1960s? Well, no need to wonder any longer, Patti Smith will take you right there in this fascinating autobiography. Just Kids is the story of rock and roll chick Patti Smith’s love affair and artistic collaboration with photography’s bad boy Robert Mapplethorpe, from their first chance meeting in a shop to his death-bed only two decades later.
Twenty-year old Smith arrives in New York City, penniless and unemployed, but full of artistic ambitions. Her accepting, bohemian mother sends with her a waitress uniform, well aware that Patti has no talent for waitressing. After sleeping on various couches and even in backstreets, Patti finds a job in a shop, in walks Robert Mapplethorpe, broke and homeless as well, and a match is made in artist heaven.
Mapplethorpe’s background, a poor but strictly Catholic family from Long Island (Mapplethorpe used to be a choir boy), has a surprisingly strong influence on his work and life. Smith and Mapplethorpe even lie about their relationship, pretending they are married, to appease Mapplethorpe’s parents. Might seem bizarre to us today, given how progressive they were as artist, but remember, we’re still in the 1960s.
Completely engrossed in the job of becoming artists and creating a persona for themselves, Smith and Mapplethorpe come across as utterly self-absorbed (dressing takes hours and is described down to the very last detail). They’re also obsessed with the ‘hierarchy of cool’ of the New York artist scene, plotting and planning (in particular Mapplethorpe) their next move up the artistic and social ladder.
That they will one day succeed, they have no doubts about. Rumour has it that Smith walked into the legendary Chelsea Hotel, the home of countless artists and musicians, with the opening line: “Hi, my name is Patti Smith and I’ve got Robert Mapplethorpe outside. You don’t know us, but we’re going to be big stars one day.”
In the background hovers the enigmatic Andy Warhol, the epitome of cool and the person from whom everyone seeks approval. Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Allan Ginsberg, Diana Arbus and Jimi Hendrix, Smith and Mapplethorpe’s social circle reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the 1960s art world. (There are quite a few other names here that didn’t ring a bell for me.)
As a portrait of a friendship and the making of two artists, it’s an absolutely captivating story. Starting out as lovers, Mapplethorpe’s realisation that he’s gay is hugely painful to both of them; Smith’s tender account is the most moving part of the book. Their friendship survives (although you get the sense that Mapplethorpe was the love of Smith’s life) and they continue to inspire, critique and encourage each other. They draw, make jewellery, write the occasional poem. It takes some time before they find their media, in her case, poetry and music, in his, photography.
Smith gets increasingly uneasy as Mapplethorpe branches out into ever more extreme sexual practises and documents it all as part of his art. But the fundamental mutual respect remains until the day Mapplethorpe dies of AIDS, after a long, painful illness.
I really enjoyed this book, it’s a captivating story, beautifully told; An insight into a particularly vibrant time of New York City’s history, the creative Mecca of the 1960s. Smith captures their relationship and journey to becoming artist with honesty and wisdom, concluding that ‘…to be an artist was to see what others could not’.
PS – As with most high-profile, controversial people, there are alternative versions of the story. A few years before Smith’s book came out, Patricia Morrisroe’s biography of Mapplethorpe (commissioned by the artist himself) painted him and Smith in a less than sympathetic light (arrogant and racist, amongst other things). Smith and most of Mapplethorpe’s friends rejected it. Which is the truer version, I don’t know, but it might be an interesting follow-up read.
Just Kids by Patti Smith is published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 288 pages.