In 1978, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe collaborated on an art show in New York that poet-critic Rene Ricard dubbed “Diary of a Friendship.” That could have been the corny subtitle of Just Kids, but the book⎯which is only occasionally corny and often deeply affecting⎯has none. Smith appends nothing market-friendly like “My Life with Robert Mapplethorpe,” probably for the same reason she uses, on the cover, a faded portrait of them taken at Coney Island in 1969 in lieu of a Mapplethorpe art photo. This is not a memoir of what these two became; it’s about their becoming.
They met in 1967, on the day Smith showed up penniless in New York. She headed for Brooklyn in search of old friends, knocked on the wrong Fort Greene door, and there he was, “pale and slim, with masses of dark curls.” Smith had a knack for this sort of fateful encounter. Long before she forms a band or cuts a record, she dates Sam Shepard and Jim Carroll, befriends Harry Smith and Johnny Winter, sings one of her first songs to comfort a distraught Janis Joplin, meets Jimi Hendrix outside a party both are too shy to enter, and gets chatted up in an Automat by Allen Ginsberg, who mistakes her for “a very pretty boy.” When she finally does perform with musicians and makes a big local splash, she frets that it is all coming too easily.
Smith depicts herself not so much a scenester as a sober (in both senses of the world) observer. For all its period detail and depictions of semi-voluntary squalor, Just Kids is hardly a Please Kill Me-style tell-all, but it is a vivid portrayal of a bygone New York that could support a countercultural artistic firmament. Even the geography remains unexplored. When Mapplethorpe decides he needs an embryo in formaldehyde for an art installation, the two find one by combing the ruins of the old City Hospital on Welfare (soon to become Roosevelt) Island.
Like her music, Smith’s rarified idea of the Artist (“I did it for poetry, I did it for Rimbaud,”) is occasionally grating, but much of the power of this book comes from her ability to recall lucid memories in straightforward prose. Even with all their relationship’s permutations (romantic, Platonic, maternal)⎯especially when Mapplethorpe begins to confront his sexuality⎯it comes off nearly devoid of melodrama. Just Kids makes a convincing case that faith in another’s expressive capability can form a bond as strong as any physical or emotional commitment. Smith nudges Mapplethorpe toward photography. Mapplethorpe urges her to put poetry to music, and bankrolls her first recording session.
If there was a point where their relationship really came to fruition, it was with the iconic photo Mapplethorpe shot for the cover of Smith’s first album, Horses. In appropriately gender-bending terms, she describes the result as “my aural sheath swathed in Robert’s image.” “When I look at it now, I never see me,” she writes. “I see us.”
Greg Milner is the author of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. His writing has appeared in Spin, the Sunday Times of London, Rolling Stone, Slate, Salon, Wired, and The Word.