April 17, 1976. The first time I ever saw Patti Smith was during her memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live. I was 13 and just getting turned on to punk rock — The Ramones, Blondie, Boomtown Rats…and Patti Smith. I remember being fascinated by what I saw but also more than a little puzzled. There was something more there than just music. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was art with a capital A.
As I grew older, I also grew fairly tired of the harsh, dissonant sound of punk. It seemed to me it became an affectation rather than a belief, an excuse rather than a stand. But I never grew tired of Patti Smith and her raspy, atonal vocals and raw, poetic lyrics. After awhile though, she disappeared and I forgot about her and her music/art.
Until I read a review of Just Kids, which I knew I had to get my hands on.
Just Kids is the story of Smith and her lover/friend/soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, a trailblazer in his own right. Smith’s elegant, lyrical prose begins with her own childhood and eventually blends into her early life in NYC, where she wandered the streets alone, until she met Mapplethorpe.
She describes their early life together as one full of discovery and expression — both creating art as they felt it and experienced it in their daily lives. Objects held great importance for Smith and Mapplethorpe — how objects are made, used, treasured, seen. Smith used words and music to describe, while Mapplethorpe used the camera and both succeeded in making us see things differently.
Smith opens a window into the NYS art scene of the 70s and 80s, populated by such people as Andy Warhol and his entourage. While she writes about living and interacting with people now considered icons, Smith makes them all seem like regular human beings living out their purpose. None of the woke up one day and said “I’m going to create an icon today.” Instead they simply lived their lives and created as they went.
Art was as natural to them as breathing.
Throughout it all, Smith gives a human voice to Mapplethorpe, who continues to be considered one of the most controversial artists ever. He was just a beautiful boy trying to help people look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary.
Smith handles Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS with gentleness and authentic remorse. She uses a number of his photos of her throughout the book which reveal a stark but elegant beauty. Her account of Mapplethorpe’s last days and the aftermath of his death is heartbreaking.
Just Kids is a beautiful book and well worth the reading.
Mapplethorpe asks Smith at the end, “Did Art get us, Patti?” Maybe it did.