Just Kids: a true rapture

I have just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, her beautifully written song of love and elegy for Robert Mapplethorpe .  ‘This book is so honest and pure as to count as a true rapture’,  Joan Didion says on the back cover, and that comment captures absolutely the tenderness and the beauty of this exquisite book.

Although her narrative closes with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Patti Smith focusses on the years between 1967, when she first arrived, penniless in New York and first met Mapplethorpe, and the late 1970s when their lives diverged, as she broke through to rock stardom.

Though Patti came from a poor family, both her parents encouraged and stimulated her interest in art and literature, and the determination to make art is central to her  account.  And so it was that, twenty years old with a head full of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, she arrived in New York in July 1967 to start a new life. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the first people she met, briefly, that day:

At 20 years old, I boarded the bus from Philadelphia to New York. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old grey raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.

I immediately took the subway from Port Authority to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. It was a sunny afternoon. I was hoping my friends might put me up until I could find a place of my own. I went to the brownstone at the address I had, but they had moved. The new tenant motioned toward a room at the rear of the flat and suggested that his roommate might know the new address.

I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled.

When I told him of my plight, he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him. I watched him as he walked ahead, leading the way with a light-footed gait, slightly bowlegged. I noticed his hands as he tapped his fingers against his thigh. I had never seen anyone like him. He delivered me to another brownstone on Clinton Avenue, gave a little farewell salute, smiled, and was on his way.

Patti gets a job in a bookstore, and one day the boy with dark curls comes in.  Later that week, another chance encounter with the boy saves her from a desperate situation.

As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood.

Soon the couple were living together, part of a generation of struggling young bohemians who would make New York in the late 60s and early 70s a vibrant hub of creativity.  They struggle to pay for food and shelter, take care of each other and dedicate themselves to making art. ‘To me, Robert and I were irrevocably entwined’, Smith writes.

Patti Smith’s intensely personal account is revealing in that it contradicts the taken-for-granted image of the couple as wild and druggy. Rather, as the title suggests, their lasting friendship was defined more than anything by its innocence and purity – two qualities that suffuse Patti Smith’s lyrical prose.

We played similar games, declared the most obscure objects treasure, and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion.

Smith gave Mapplethorpe love without reservation. Her devotion to him was undimmed by Robert’s discovery of his homosexuality and his entry into a world of  gay hustlers and S&M.  What, to her, was more dismaying was his social ascent. She could understand his love for men, but in order for her to spend time with his new, rich friends she would have had to change her ways:

I was a bad girl trying to be good and he was a good boy trying to be bad.

She speaks frankly about being shocked and frightened by the direction that Mapplethorpe began to take in his photography: the pictures were frightening, she says, the work shocking.It was meant that way:

Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art… I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality.

Smith left New York for Detroit in 1979 to live with the man she would eventually marry, the guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, just as Mapplethorpe’s career was taking off. By then Smith had already produced Horses and had risen to international fame with her hit single, ‘Because The Night’.  It’s at this point that the main section of the book draws to a close.

‘Separate ways but together’ is how Smith describes her continuing connection to Mapplethorpe from the time she left New York to his death in 1989 from complications due to AIDS: ‘Robert was ever in my conciousness, the blue star in the constellation of my personal cosmology’.

When she discovers that Mapplethorpe is dying of Aids in 1989, Smith writes with brutal poignancy that ‘every fear I had once harboured seemed to materialise with the suddenness of a bright sail bursting into flames’. Her description of a moment towards the end of Robert’s life – at the recording of  ‘Jackson Song’, when she herelf is pregnant with her second child – is beautifully composed and simply heartbreaking. Smith is always acutely sensitive to pattern and coincidence; she writes:

Later that evening, Robert attended the recording of the lullaby that Fred and I had written for our son, Jackson. It was the song I had sung to Sam Wagstaff.  There was a nod to Robert in the second verse:  Little blue star that offers light.  He sat on the couch in the control room.  I would always remember the date.  It was the nineteenth of March, the birthday of my mother.

Richard Sohl was at the piano.  I was facing him.  We were recording it live.  The baby moved within me.  Richard asked Fred if he had any special orders.  ‘Make them cry, Richard, ‘ was all he said.  We had one false start, then put everything we had into the second take.  As I finished, Richard repeated the final chords.  I looked through the glass window into the control room.  Robert had fallen asleep on the couch and Fred was standing alone, weeping.

What is unstated, is that everyone named in this passage is now dead. Robert died on 9 March 1989.  Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s partner, for whom Patti wrote ‘Paths That Cross’, died in 1987.  Richard Sohl, her pianist died in 1990.  Her husband, Fred, died in 1994, and her mother in 2002.

Robert and I were always ourselves—’til the day he died, we were just exactly as we were when we met. And we loved each other. Everybody wants to define everything. Is it necessary to define love?

It is this genuine devotion  – to her private artistic saints and to her friends –  that permeates this wonderful book. It has been universally acclaimed as a poetic masterpiece, and was winner of the National Book Award in 2010. At the award ceremony, Patti Smith said:

I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf.  Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.

Patti Smith discusses Just Kids at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, December 2010

Paths That Cross

The Jackson Song



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