just scrappy little urchins who ended up counterculture icons, that’s all
Just Kids by Patti Smith is a rare little gem. To me, Patti Smith has always exuded a punk rock swagger, an only half-bridled aggression. I see her, and I see only the hard, sharp angles of her. And Robert Mapplethorpe: leather, whips, unapologetic sex acts with a peculiar defiant dignity to them. Both of them are creatures who seem to have been launched straight from the scene, fully-formed and antagonistic right from the start.
But they weren’t. Just Kids is a memoir by Patti Smith about her time living in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe while they were both shaking off the dull scraps of adolescence and trying to break out as artists. Strewn throughout the book are pictures of them as very young excitable artists-in-training joined at the hip.
Smith’s prose reads like a soft-focus fairy tale. The sections set in the Chelsea Hotel, especially, have an almost Dickensian quality to them; they read as a quaint story full of larger-than-life characters, most of whom have hearts firmly of gold. Reconciling this wistful retelling of her youth with the persona I associate with her was intriguing to say the least. And obviously I am not the only one who found the disconnect between Patti Smith’s presence and her internal life jarring — there are places in the text where she discusses how those around her took her for a lesbian (she is straight), or a junkie (she seems not to have experimented with pot until she’d moved out of the Chelsea). Her prose is light and airy, and her memories sepia-tinged and wholesome, despite the fact that anyone who knows the history of that scene knows just how much death and self-immolation is happening just off screen. Patti Smith herself seems to have waltzed through it unscathed, and her writing dances along the edges of the darkness that her scene held*. Without the debauchery, the excess, the Chelsea Hotel in the 70s reads as an almost Victorian affair.
The book is structured in a circle: it opens with the moment Smith hears of Mapplethorpe’s death, then jumps back in time before they have met. Smith discusses her teenage pregnancy and the process of giving her child up for adoption, her failure at teacher’s school, and her time on a New Jersey assembly line in a brisk and somewhat sanitized fashion; again, there seems to be in her writing a distaste for discussions of the negative, of the hard and bleak moments of her life. From there, the book jumps forward to her first meeting with Mapplethorpe, their sweet and heartfelt romance, the little poverty-stricken life they build together, and how hard they worked to evolve their relationship with each other when their life trajectories began to diverge. The book ends with a far jump into the future, back to those last few weeks of Mapplethorpe’s life and ends with his inevitable death, right back where the book started.
Given that the book is told from Smith’s perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that her motives and desires are clear throughout, but over the course of the book Mapplethorpe becomes more and more opaque. A boy who seems simple when she first meets him grows into a man full of contradictions. The person whose viewpoints and life goals seemed to mirror hers so closely at first winds up yearning to be part of the social circles that Smith herself actively avoids. It became increasingly unsettling as I read the book. What does he get from her that keeps him around? How does he see her and their ever-changing relationship? Very little is explored here in the text, and Smith herself seems to take their relationship at face value, as a thing complete in itself with little context surrounding it. It just is for her, and her wholesale acceptance of it is so radically different from the way I, personally, live out my significant life-altering relationships that it was hard for me to understand at times what their relationship was exactly. But there is an authenticity to her writing that explains the halcyon haze through which she remembers that time of her life. That period, above anything else, was her period with Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom she had a love so total and accepting it is essentially blank, without specificities, and all the hardness of that time is drowned out in remembrance of him.
Just Kids is, like most memoirs, ultimately a work that says as much or more about its author than the subject matter itself. The story there is as much in the telling as it is in the content. And it’s a fascinating look into the mind of a woman who is so very different than the person I assumed her to be. It is a love letter to the late Robert Mapplethorpe, but it’s a love letter to her young self, as well. I can’t help but wish there had been some balance to it, some acknowledgment of the difficulties of living so poor, or of loving a man who seems to fall into and out of and into and out of love with her, or of the pain of watching her friends get consumed by drugs right in front of her, but that’s not the book she wrote. It may not be a book she’s able to write. I can’t help but think of her as an unreliable narrator for her own life, but ultimately that’s what we all are. It’s hard to tell the bald truth about your own life. It might be impossible. But still, the unanswered questions nag at me. I found this book absolutely fascinating, but when it was over, it felt insubstantial. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.
*Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov of Warhol’s Factory crew is a bird’s eye account of the dark addictions Patti Smith seems to prefer to keep just out of frame. I highly recommend it, too, and it works as a very interesting counterbalance to Just Kids.