Patti Smith Just Kids
When you know you are on the other side of the looking glass, you are not telling the story, you are creating it. And this is what Patti Smith does in her memoir of New York and Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids.
Patti Smith takes as her subject the Wonderland years, her own and America's, with the artists, vagabonds, and hustlers struggling in their innocence to comprehend and be comprehended in a strange looking-glass world in which the perils of their play were not always apparent, but inevitable, and rarely as farce, more often as tragedy. Innocence in her depiction is a strange garment to wear, a costume that is a reality, as illusions are a means of creation and minds play sleight of hand with themselves. At the center of it all stand Mapplethorpe and Patti, both thoroughly conscious in different ways of the importance of achieving a style, a physical definition of their being in clothes, stance, all the outward signs and signal of their presence, continuously following and rewriting a script, initially shared but increasingly diverging, socially, sexually, and intellectually.
Mapplethorpe discovers his sexuality, or more concretely the strength and will to live that sexuality, but it is not his homosexuality that divides them. The single constant in Smith's journey through Wonderland is the love she has for Mapplethorpe, and he for her. It resists definition. It is not sexual, though they shared physical intimacy and betrayal. It is not friendship, for they did share physical intimacy and betrayal and in modern parlance friendship is a shallow pool that their commitment to one another went far beyond. It is, perhaps, a necessity born of the time, their personas, and their desires, not for one another, but for Art and, for Mapplethorpe, fame.
Just Kids is a story of youth, therefore of innocence, for the young have not lived long enough, experienced enough, to be wise. Or corrupt. Patti Smith has her record cover heroes: Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and the chanteuses of Europe. Mapplethorpe has his belief in himself as an artist, not a man, a lover, or a friend. In her view, he was always an artist, while she was a girl who wanted to be an artist, who struggled toward the realization of this vocation, living in the process a bohemian script that approximated what an artist should be and the suffering appropriate to the calling.
Throughout the narrative, prophets and harbingers of the alternatives to success, the dangers of Wonderland, abound: Saint the Venutian, the addicts who were once artists and are now ghosts dancing in hotel hallways, the cut-throat women of the B-list. In their innocence, the young romanticize the ghosts and the derelicts without recognizing their pertinence, deaf and blind to their warning presences. Elevated above these harbingers, but just as dangerous, lives the Silver King, Andy Warhol, with his Factory and its manufactured cliques and politics.
There are other memoirs of American artists and life in the late 1960s and 1970s exist. What separates Smith's from these others, other than her own position as one of the great women of American art and music and intimacy with the equally renowned Mapplethorpe, is the tone. Patti Smith is not bitter. She does not carry into the present any rancor from the past. In fact, she appears to be a singularly tolerant, compassionate women, and to have been so from her youth. Taking upon herself the role of muse, unsure of her vocation as an artist, she was concerned not with judging her contemporaries, but with strengthening and supporting Mapplethorpe and, later, with developing and pursuing her own artistic vision. With the petty hatreds and feuds of the time removed, or never having been of great importance to Smith, one can enter the time without choosing sides, embracing or fighting another person's judgments of those artists and that time.