Sheet Music: 'Just Kids'
Reviewed by Cindy Widner, Fri., Feb. 5, 2010
Just Kidsby Patti Smith
HarperCollins, 304 pp., $27
Patti Smith's debut album, 1975's Horses, surely would have achieved its iconic status without the tuff cover photo, but you can bet it would have taken a lot longer. Legion are those who picked it up because they were drawn to Robert Mapplethorpe's cover photograph – a study in androgyny, vulnerability, homage, and swagger – only to have their heads turned around when they put needle to record. It's a testament to artistic collaboration, a usually fraught and loaded act Smith and Mapplethorpe perfected during their long, complicated relationship – starting as lovers in the late 1960s, becoming friends as Mapplethorpe's homosexuality emerged, then taking care of each other materially and artistically until his premature death in 1989.
"Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph," writes Smith in Just Kids, her memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, but that's a hedge; we're meant to see both artists' mutability, the equivalent artistry and easy passage between observing and constructing oneself to be observed. Just Kids requires buying into a few concepts that can now seem quaint, if not contrived: the transcendence of art and the sanctity of the artist, the idea that creation is hard work, the notion that ambition and bohemianism are not at mutual odds, and, probably, the existence of God.
Once you're on board, though, it's a beautiful ride. We follow Smith from South Jersey to Brooklyn, then the Chelsea Hotel and the Lower East Side, as she seeks, kills, and resurrects her idols, working in bookstores and shacking up with Sam Shepard and Allen Lanier, hanging out and dropping names (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol's retinue, and many more notables). There are mythologized and uncanny incidents, to be sure, but the incantatory strength of voice and detail wins us over. This is the storytelling Smith we hear less often in her songs and poetry than in improvised banter during her live performances, readings, and interviews: direct, linear, humble, hilarious.
The cumulative effect has the same epic thunder as her "Land" trilogy or her "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" mashup, both of which we learn were in part inspired by seeing Mapplethorpe in his element: leaning on a parking meter outside the Whitney Museum (they couldn't afford two tickets), screaming around the Village after midnight. When she paints a picture of the bohemian wonderland that was 1970s lower Manhattan, we're wistful. When we learn that at one point Smith cried so often that Mapplethorpe christened her "Soakie," we're amused. When she describes Mapplethorpe's literalized torment as he transforms from good Catholic boy to confrontational, fetish-seeking artist, we're both thrilled and saddened. And when she promises him, posthumously, that "art sings of God," we find it easy to believe her.