BY FRED MILLS
Patti Smith’s memoir of her times (and life) with late
artist Robert Mapplethorpe Just Kids (Ecco Books) was published much earlier this year and got covered in all the
“right” places; a big excerpt was published in Rolling Stone. It was subsequently nominated for a 2010 National
Book Award, in the nonfiction category alongside books by Barbara Demick, John
W. Dower, Justin Spring and Megan K. Stack, by the
National Book Foundation. (It arrives in stores in paperback form this week,
Yet lost among all the “event” stuff, perhaps, was what a
quietly personal, and ultimately meditative, volume it actually is. Rather than
a “when gods walked the earth, blah blah blah…” account of rock ‘n’ roll
misadventures, it’s a reflective book that, even when namechecking some of the
biggest and boldest of those gods (Dylan, Hendrix, Ginsberg and Sam Shepard
were among the many icons whose paths Smith crossed), attempts to place
everything within the larger context of how a pair of artistically-inclined
misfits gradually found their way in the world.
What’s more, a sense of inevitability hangs over the entire
thing that renders the very act of reading a deeply emotional one. You already
know that Mapplethorpe will die on March 9, 1989, and that Patti wrote the book
to fulfill a promise she’d made to him, so there’s no getting around the fact
that Just Kids is offered not only
from a position of respect/remembrance, but also from deep grief.
Approaching the final, devastating chapter in which Patti
writes about Mapplethorpe’s death, in fact, an overwhelming sense of grief
washed over me; I had to put the book down for several minutes just to calm
myself enough to continue. Up until now she’d been recounting the very-real
shared history that was hers and Mapplethorpe’s, from when they first met in
the late ‘60s after she’d escaped southern New Jersey in order to land in the
artistic bohemia of NYC, through their mutual explorations of their respective
muses, and to the mid/late ‘70s when each had spun off unto their own artistic
universes – all the while knowing of (and frequently expressing) their
unyielding, permanent devotion to one another as friends, as inspirations and
as soul mates no matter where they might journey individually.
Patti’s writing throughout is cautious, yet exhilarating.
One moment she appears to be deliberating with her prose so as not to fall prey
to an unnecessarily florid flourish. The next, she’s caught up in the utter
celebration of a memory, whether it’s one of her own personal triumphs (her
descriptions of how she went from being a wannabe scenester to doing poetry
readings to the initial stirrings of the Patti Smith Group are particularly
valuable as a first-hand chronicle of the 1970s Max’s/CBGB milieu) or one of
Mapplethorpe’s (even when she’s expressing mild confusion over the
photographer’s fixation on homoerotica and S&M imagery – bullwhip in the
ass, young man pissing in another’s mouth, etc. – she still marvels with
unencumbered enthusiasm at the man’s visual gifts). And the story of how the
iconic cover of Horses came to be, a
moment when the pair’s muses locked arms for all posterity to witness, is
simply a must-read.
“When I look at it now,” writes Patti, of the album sleeve,
“I never see me. I see us.”
It’s that permanent connection, I think, that haunts me now.
I’m not sure if I ever truly considered how powerful those things can be,
extended beyond the grave and, perhaps, into infinity. Maybe I’ve just never
been strong enough as a person to dwell too deeply or at length upon those I’ve
lost; defense mechanism or simply cowardice on my part, at least I can report
that with this book, my eyes are just a little bit more open. Hopefully my
On the next to last page of the main body of Just Kids, Patti Smith writes of driving
down to the beach with her family for Easter, a few weeks after Mapplethorpe’s
death. She’s standing beside the ocean, looking at the waves, hearing the cries
of seagulls mingling with the voices of her children, and she imagines
Mapplethorpe’s green eyes, his dark hair, and his voice: Smile for me, Patti, as I am smiling for you.
We should all smile.