Promises fulfilled

Love relationships between great artists have inspired some fine literature throughout history, be it works the artists created for each other during their own lifetimes or as fodder for novels, memoirs, or even motion pictures and plays after the fact. Surely one of the greatest such love affairs of the past half century was the one between Patti Smith, who helped give birth to punk rock by merging three chords with the power of her poetry, and Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer whose graphic S&M images would later spark one of the most publicized cultural battles between art aficionados in modern history. The greatness of that relationship would probably be indisputable even if it had generated nothing more than the iconic Mapplethorpe-shot Smith portrait that graces the cover of her debut album, Horses, which is still as stunning today — well, at least when viewed at 12 inches — as it was in 1975.

In Just Kids, Smith’s new memoir about their relationship and love affair (or as Smith so sweetly described it during a recent TV interview with Tavis Smiley: “He was my boyfriend”). One of the numerous traits the couple shared was a love for androgyny. Smith’s was accentuated on the Horses cover, even if she had no idea of what the word meant at the time. When a friend finally tells her that androgyny is, “You know, like Mick Jagger,” Smith writes that she simply “figured that must be cool.”

It’s these little morsels of youthful naïveté, delivered with the luxury of adult hindsight, that make Just Kids such a wonderful read. The book has that same dual childlike fascination and maternal wisdom she’s brought to most of her greatest art. Even as far back as Horses, one immediately got the sense that Smith was someone who’d experienced things the majority of us hadn’t. And great portions of Just Kids prove that she absolutely did, especially when viewed from a “rubbing-shoulders-with-the-birth-of-a-counterculture” perspective ... and especially after the couple moves into New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel in 1969. One of the book’s funniest stories finds beat poet Allen Ginsberg trying to pick up Smith during their first meeting, mistaking her for a particularly attractive male youth.

There are encounters with, and stories involving, a who’s who of cultural touchstones from the era. Smith’s there when Kris Kristofferson first plays “Me and Bobby McGee” for Janis Joplin in New York; it’s later suggested that Smith is the one who gave a dejected Joplin the moniker “Pearl.” Everyone from Arthur C. Clarke and folklorist Harry Smith to Bobby Neuwirth, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix make appearances in this story. There are also anecdotes about the whole Max’s Kansas City scene and Warhol crew, even though the writer admits she wasn’t a big fan of Warhol himself (“I hated the soup and felt very little for the can”).

Smith also writes of her subsequent New York love affairs after Mapplethorpe: With playwright and collaborator (and future movie star) Sam Shepard, who gave her the courage to finally perform in public. With Blue Oyster Cult’s Allen Lanier. With fellow poet and future rock star Jim Carroll, who, like Mapplethorpe, helped support himself early on as a male street hustler but also tells her he was “not gay” because, unlike Mapplethorpe — whose homosexuality began to emerge during his years with Smith — Carroll only ever did it for the money.

More importantly, however, this is ultimately a book about how the seminal union between the two artists featured on its cover inspired and supported each other in what would be a lifelong spiritual bonding. Mapplethorpe would color Smith’s life, career and art, obviously even all the years after his death. She promised Mapplethorpe she’d write their story the day before his 1989 death from AIDS, so Just Kids is more than just a memoir — it’s the fulfillment of an oath. “I was a bad girl trying to be good,” she writes of their blooming love early in the book, “and he was a good boy trying to be bad.” It’s interesting to note, especially in retrospect, how well both of them managed to achieve those ambitions.

Smith had little more than a book of poetry by her idol Arthur Rimbaud and the dreams she dreamed as a working-class kid in New Jersey when she arrived in Manhattan in 1967, smack-dab in the middle of the Summer of Love. She was fresh from a series of menial jobs she’d later describe in her first single as a “Piss Factory.” A teachers’ college dropout, she had also recently given up a child from an unintended pregnancy for adoption. Smith meets the former Catholic altar boy and aspiring artist her first day in the new city and they are soon constant companions. He’d also prove, in many ways, to be her salvation. Some reviewers have complained about the short shrift she gives to a few seemingly important moments in her life, such as the entire CBGB’s scene, which is described and wrapped up in a mere four pages. But it would seem that everything featured in Just Kids is based solely on how it’s relatable to Mapplethorpe and their relationship. For instance, probably the only reason she mentions something like her collaboration with Springsteen on “Because the Night” is because Mapplethorpe teased her — “Patti, you got famous before me” — after the record became a hit.

What’s perhaps most captivating about this memoir, though, is how well Smith captures what it was to be an artist at that particular time and in that particular place — so full of hope, youth, and spirit or what she later described as the “sea of possibilities” on Horses. It’s also a vivid portrait of the New York City that many of us may remember but is now long lost to eternity. And it’s almost cinematic in its portrayal of what it was to be truly bohemian in those days, when there still were genuine countercultures and everything “underground” couldn’t be co-opted by internet users in a matter of days, if not hours.

But more than anything, it’s a book about the true belief in the power of art, of being an artist and, of course, love. “You drew me from the darkest period of my young life,” she later wrote to Mapplethorpe (whose S&M imagery, Smith admits, she found frightening and bewildering), “sharing with me the sacred ministry of what it means to be an artist.” She credits him with introducing her to “a whole universe I had yet to know.” No artist could ask for a finer elegy.

Just Kids begins and ends with the phone call Smith received early one morning, informing her of Mapplethorpe’s death. She’s living in the Detroit area by that time with husband (and former MC5 star) Fred “Sonic” Smith — he and their two young children still asleep upstairs. It’s early March, so we can all imagine the darkness that would be surrounding her that time of year in Michigan, even if it hadn’t been early morning. As a result, the remembrances here are as chilling as they are beautiful, as sad as they are inspiring. But perhaps the finest element of Just Kids — as well as the end result of the love affair between these two star-crossed kids — is that it proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that youth isn’t always wasted on the young. •