Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Just Kids": A Bohemian World For Two

Just Kids by Patti Smith. 306 pp. Ecco. $16.95 (paperback)

Arriving in New York City in the late sixties, Patti Smith knew no one and slept in Central Park. She was fortunate to meet Robert Mapplethorpe, who took her in. They became bohemian soul mates, friends and lovers. Smith worked in bookstores and insisted on supporting Mapplethorpe (though he sometimes worked as a hustler), as both worked on, and lived for, their art projects. Money was extremely tight; since they couldn’t afford two tickets to a museum, one would go inside and later describe the exhibit to the one who waited outside. 

In "Just Kids," Smith provides a portrait of the arts scene in the New York of the sixties and seventies, including CBGB, the punk rock palace, and the Chelsea Hotel, legendary home to countless artists, where the two lived together. There are also appearances by Allen Ginsberg, Jim Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin and other legendary figures. This, however, is the story of Smith and Mapplethorpe and their artistic development. Mapplethorpe stated, "Nobody sees as we do, Patti"–a comment that made Smith feel "as if we were the only two people in the world." Smith encouraged Mapplethorpe in his gradual turn toward photography, though she was uncomfortable about a controversial subject of his, sadomasochism. Mapplethorpe encouraged Smith as she set her poetry to rock, shooting the iconic cover of her album "Horses." Smith was inspired by the poetry of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the music of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Attending a Doors concert at the Fillmore East, Smith watched Morrison’s performance and thought “I could do that,” beginning a journey that resulted in her becoming "the godmother of punk."

Mapplethorpe’s gradual assumption of his gay identity resulted in the end of their sexual relationship, but their intense friendship continued until he died of AIDS in 1989. Smith concludes this deeply affecting memoir with a few poems dedicated to Mapplethorpe. One reflects his photos of flowers: “A wall of flowers concealing all the tears of a relatively young man with nothing but glory in his grasp. And what he would be grasping is the hand of God drawing him into another garden.”

Writer Jonathan Lethem interviewed Smith at a literary festival in 2010:

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