Outside of Society

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Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe chronicles two “mutinous spirits” in the chaos of 1970s New York.

In July, 1967, Patti Smith fled southern New Jersey for an apartment in Fort Greene, looking to stay with high school friends, but they had apparently moved. The new tenant suggested she speak to his other roommate, who might know where they went. In Just Kids, her memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, she remembers entering a room to find a curly-haired boy, “lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck,” asleep.

Mapplethorpe directed her to another nearby brownstone. But “as fortune would have it,” she writes, her friends did not return. She wandered the streets, looking for work and kindred spirits. Soon, she took a job at a bookstore where the same boy appeared and bought a Persian necklace. “Don’t give it to any girl but me,” she said. “I won’t,” he responded.

She spied him a third time while trying to escape a date in Tompkins Square Park and asked him to pretend he was her boyfriend. Smith and Mapplethorpe would spend the next five years bouncing between flophouses and apartments and, most famously, the Chelsea Hotel. The Persian necklace was but one of many gifts.

Enchantment can be irritating. Patti Smith is often criticized for her pseudo-mysticism—for being the adult equivalent of an adolescent poet with a Tarot deck. In fact, Smith has virtually copywritten that myth; her universe, as constructed in this memoir, bursts with connections. The godmother of punk writes that, as a child, she read a book on Zelda Fitzgerald and “identified with her mutinous spirit.” She remembers passing shop windows with her mother and asking why people don’t just kick them in. Her mother explained that “there were unspoken rules of social behavior, and that’s the way we coexist as people.” Smith says, “I felt instantly confined by the notion that we are born into a world where everything was mapped out before us.”

So she drew her own map, overcrowded with movie stars, rock heroes, poets, and other historical figures, as a way to render productive her destructive impulses. Smith keeps faith with the past. She recalls a doctor’s advice that she eat red meat and drink porter for anemia as the same advice given to Baudelaire. Mapplethorpe’s gallery opening was on Joan of Arc’s birthday. Smith chose to visit Paris in October, the birth month of her hero, Arthur Rimbaud. And, like her hero, Bob Dylan, whom she thought to be an incarnation of Rimbaud, Smith trusts that fame is passed down through the ages. A scene at El Quijote, the bar-restaurant adjacent to the Chelsea, works as a dramatic tableau: To the left, Janis Joplin sat with her band. To the right, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish. Jimi Hendrix was at the table facing the door. “When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people,” Smith writes, “though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience.” She inserts herself as a character in her own myth, where she knows just enough, but can’t predict the future.

Though she worshipped the living as much as the deceased, Smith was put off by social climbing; she relates details of the personalities that filled her early days from the position of an outsider, slightly starstruck. Andy Warhol is caustically described as “like an eel, slithering away from meaningful conversation.” As someone given to visions, and who reads significance into every date and chance encounter, it makes sense that Smith wouldn’t initially take to a crowd that first noticed her the day she appeared with her hair cut like Keith Richards.

Mapplethorpe, on the other hand, was explicitly interested in class transition. Accompanying him on his adventures, Smith became less judgmental and grew to appreciate the scenes at Max’s Kansas City and Warhol’s Factory. Mapplethorpe’s admission of homosexuality, when being openly gay was less common, added tension to their relationship—Smith hadn’t seen that the increasing use of gay porn magazines and sadomasochistic imagery in his art was an expression of his internal struggle, not simply a new facet of his work.

Smith recalls many of these moments with startling specificity, but in the last months of Mapplethorpe’s life, she stopped writing in a diary, “perhaps losing heart.” Just Kids captures the time before she achieved her own iconic status, focusing exclusively on her relationship with Mapplethorpe, avoiding discussion of the later deaths of her parents, her brother, and her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. Her dreamy overdeterminism is all the more poignant for having weathered so much loss since Mapplethorpe’s death—what might have seemed like a pose in her youth has become a kind of honest duty.

The dream of pop music—that it can shape the world, inspire the feeling of freedom for even a moment—has become a cliché. But its sense of wild abandon enlarged Smith’s idea of what is possible, and she continues to see its power in helping us comprehend our lives. Of her debut album, Horses, she writes that it encoded “the gratitude I had for rock and roll as it pulled me through a difficult adolescence. The joy I experienced when I danced. The moral power I gleaned in taking responsibility for one’s actions” as well as “a salute to those who paved the way before us.”

In other words, the same urgency that made Smith flee New Jersey led to her recording that album, cementing her personal narrative. Her wide-ranging influences fuse in the music, such as “Land,” a three-part suite that combines William S. Burroughs-like wild-boy images, the stages of Hendrix’s death, mentions of Rimbaud, and ‘60s dance crazes, within a surrealist storyline of a boy discovering the redemptive potential of sex and music. The album’s cover photo was shot by Mapplethorpe—Smith affects nonchalance in a white shirt, blazer thrown over her shoulder, Sinatra-like, in homage to a photograph of the writer Jean Genet, achieving a similarly original collage of her cultural obsessions. Just Kids shows how Smith integrated the romance of her twenty-year friendship with Mapplethorpe with her historical preoccupations, elevating them to an almost sacred status. The past, for Smith, has always driven her life forward. If only we could all be so free-spirited.


Blythe Sheldon is a writer living in New York. More from this author →