Just Kids is about the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; and about the way the two of them became artists; and about how it felt being a young artist in New York at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s.
Let’s start with the question of how someone becomes an artist. I know very little about this process (though I have some hunches), but the way Patti Smith describes her first relevant memories already makes it clear that she had the desire to create something from very early on in her life. Her first memory is this: she describes how once as a very little girl she was walking with her mother and suddenly saw a swan. She had never seen a swan before but she immediately got excited, and her mother – sensing the little girl’s wonder and excitement – told her: this is a swan. But Patti felt this word is not good enough, not precise enough, and she felt a great desire to say something about the swan, to find the best way to express what she sees and what she feels about it.
It took several years for her to find her very own ways of expression, yet it feels to me that from her earliest years she carried the possibility in herself to become an artist. But becoming an artist wasn’t fast and painless, and she herself often doubted whether she possessed the necessary talent and persistence.
Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967, without a dollar to her name, with only the conviction that she didn’t want to be a factory worker at home. For a while she lived on the streets, then she found a job, and soon after she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them immediately formed a life-long friendship and moved in together right away. Mapplethorpe was still invisible at that time, but as opposed to Smith, he never had the slightest doubt about the quality of his work, and he was tremendously self-confident. Smith and Mapplethorpe then went on to create art together, they continuously supported and inspired each other, and slowly they found their place in the art world of New York, and finally found success, too.
However, Just Kids is not your classic American success story following on the theme of poor-but-talented country kids working hard and thus becoming successful. This is too personal, intimate, and honest a book for that, and by the way – Patti Smith never underestimates the role of luck and coincidences in achieving success. By luck and coincidence I don’t mean that you have to be at the right place at the right time, you have to build networks, or anything like that – I mean simply how life-changing it can be for someone to receive the words, the inspiration, the support, the belief she desperately needs in a tough moment – in a moment of indecision, in a moment when she doesn’t know whether her work matters at all, in a moment of crisis.
Another reason why this is not a typical success story is that Smith for a long time couldn’t even figure out what would constitute success for her, and where her true calling lies. It also took some time for Robert Mapplethorpe to start to concentrate on photography, but for Patti Smith the road to becoming a musician was even longer and more tangled. Following the milestones of this road is a greatly interesting read – I read with fascination how she figured out the things she could and wanted to do, and the things she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.
For instance, she had a couple of roles in different plays, and finally drew the conclusion from her forays into acting that she liked being onstage, but she didn’t like being someone else onstage – she didn’t like separating her real and artistic personality, so she promptly decided that the next time she’d only stand on a stage if she could be herself there.
Besides the difficulties of becoming an artist – and perhaps I should have started with this – the other main theme of this book is the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a memorial to their two-decade friendship, and it was written in the first place because before his death, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise that one day she’d write their story. And the way Smith wrote their story is deeply touching and beautiful. The whole book is very delicate, but the sections dealing with Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe are especially pure, sublime, and gentle. I won’t even go into more details about this – my words for this could never be as good as the words of Patti Smith.
And there’s still more to this book. Patti Smith didn’t only concentrate on her art and on Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s: even though she was quite awkward in bigger groups of people, she still managed to learn about all the iconic places (such as the Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many artists, or Max’s bar, which was where Andy Warhol and his group used to hang out) and get to know lots of iconic figures (Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Sam Shepard, William S. Burroughs, and so on) of the New York art scene. Her recollections about these artists, and in general her stories about life in New York in those decades are sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad – but they are always vivid and riveting. So it’s clear from reading Just Kids that being a young artist just then, just there must truly have been a unique experience.
Patti Smith writes wonderfully – about everything; she’s emotional, sober and transcendent at once. And Just Kids is a beautiful book, completely devoid of any sentimentality – it’s a delight to read.