I finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith at Four Barrel on Valencia Street in San Francisco and although I tried my hardest to blink them back, tears kept falling out of the corners of my eyes onto my cheeks and dotting the raw wood table and then I was overwhelmed with sadness enough that I pounded the rest of my coffee in one gulp and actually went outside to walk around for a few minutes to clear the awe and despair from my mind.
Just Kids is Smith’s memoir of her years writing and drawing and singing with the illustrator/sculptor/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1970s post-Warhol New York City art scene, and it’s unequivocally the saddest and most tender and best-written and most informative book I’ve read on both this period in art history and on the two main characters.
Before reading Just Kids, I already knew a fair amount about Smith’s art and career from books on “birth of punk”-era New York like Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids, and I also went through a phase last May where I listened to her musical masterpiece, the album Horses, on repeat for a matter of weeks and every poem and story I wrote somehow involved either the phrase “Patti Smith” or some kind of thinly-veiled reference to the lyrics of “Land.” So I was already a huge Patti Smith fan, and generally pre-disposed to “love” her new book no matter how it turned out. Needless to say at this point, Just Kids blew the doors off even my impossibly-high fanboy-status expectations for it.
Instead of over-romanticizing her past, Smith talks candidly about herself and Mapplethorpe setting out to self-consciously become “artists,” and recalls many conversations about not just practical considerations like where to set up studio space, how to pay their rent, and where to find free food in NYC, but also real abstract goal concerns, such as Robert’s lust for high-society acceptance of his artwork and Patti’s own dreams of becoming a sort of modern Rimbaud. Hearing the artist herself talk about and analyze her own ambitions was rare and inspiring.
But the real subject of the book is definitely Mapplethorpe, from the constant battles in his mind between his conservative upbringing and his lust for discovery and danger through art, to his incredible physical beauty and conflicted sexuality, to his paradigm-wrecking work in sculpture, illustration, and finally his masterpieces in photography. Smith was his closest friend for much of his life, and even after they both moved on to other relationships they still remained incredibly close, and her recollections of his short and tragic and ultimately exultantly triumphant art life are so illuminating and beautiful and fragile that they will definitely inspire and dumbfound anyone interested in artwork and youth and desire and beauty and transcendence in the warehouses and lonely hotelrooms and fire escapes of New York. And maybe even drive you to real tears.