Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Even if you aren’t a fan of memoirs (which I’m not) and not a Patti Smith fanatic (ditto), Smith’s memoir Just Kids is worthwhile if only for a handful of grit from the late 60s and 70s of New York. It tells the story of singer Patti Smith and her photographer friend Robert Mapplethorpe just before they became famous. Smith came to New York after dropping out of college and giving a baby up for adoption, and Mapplethorpe came to study commercial art and to escape staid and sour family life.
Presumably due to her involvement in poetry and lyrics, Smith boils down an iconic scene to a few distinctive shots. On an acquaintance who would never shut up or shut down, she said: “I never knew whether his speedy speech patterns reflected amphetamine use or an amphetamine mind.”
Smith moved to New York the summer Coltrane died, trying to make it as a poet. Her mother gave her an old waitressing uniform, which quickly ended up in the garbage. She shuffled through several low paying jobs, read Rimbaud, and met Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989, where Smith’s memoir ends, but that’s not what you linger on; you linger on gonorrhea, impacted wisdom teeth, Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol’s factory gang, the deaths of Hendrix, Brian Jones and Janice Joplin, and gender bending in the extreme.
After she and he were introduced to one another by a friend, they ran into each other. Smith, living in not so genteel poverty, accepted a date from a shady science fiction writer just for the food. After scarfing down the cheapest item on the menu, Smith ponders how to get out of the “come up to my place for a drink” bit—and runs into Robert dressed in full bohemian slumware:
“ ‘Hello, do you remember me?’
‘Of course,’ he smiled.
‘I need help.’ I blurted, ‘Will you pretend to be my boyfriend?’
‘Sure,’ he said, as if he weren’t surprised by my sudden appearance.
I dragged him over to the science fiction guy. ‘This is my boyfriend,’ I said breathlessly. ‘He’s been looking for me. He’s really mad. He wants me to come home now. ‘ The guy looked at us both quizzically.
‘Run, I cried, and the boy grabbed my hand and we took off, through the park across to the other side.
Out of breath, we collapsed on someone’s stoop. ‘Thank you, you saved my life,’ I said. He accepted this news with a bemused expression.”
It’s pretty much on par with what I would have ad-libbed for Patti Smith finding her best friend in a S&M fascinated photographer:
—hello, want some speed?
—don’t take that! Its laced with strychnine.
And so a deathless bond would be formed. Now it would be updated along hipster lines; “Don’t do coke, that’s such a hipster thing to do, want to hang out and have me shit on your record collection…you have vinyl, right?” I like Smith’s version best. You could see it in a movie, so therefore it has to be good.
Soon after the escape from the bad date, the two moved in together, and fell into an artistic symbiotic relationship, where nothing was finished until the other saw it. Mapplethorpe stopped hovering around the Andy Warhol court and shifted his attention to photography, where he worked the occult and Smith into his work. In an unusual evolution, the two went from being best friends who slept together to just being best friends.
The title comes from a day spent in Washington Square, when a woman wanted to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe, thinking that the two were artists, and her husband dismissed the thought, saying the two are “just kids.” They were happy being free, happy to read and write and make art, and everything else could go expletive itself. Their only commitments were to art and to each other.
There’s a part when Janis Joplin comes back to Smith’s room at the Chelsea Hotel, crying because the man she came with to her concert left with another, prettier girl. But its different for Smith, perhaps because she has Robert. She writes that they “were both praying for Robert’s soul, he to sell it and I to save it,” but Robert worked to save hers as well. Smith’s trajectory—hinging on androgyny and shacking up with a photographer obsessed with the occult—is different than what you would plot out for a female singer, but that speaks to the mysteries of memoir and fame.
You can identify with their early lives—one loved to read; the other was shy and longed for escape—but then the dreams and longings don’t get packed away for degrees and mortgages. Their teenage daydreams take on some strange permutation where they leave you behind, wondering how they did it, and shaking your head at how the costs of translation into your life are too high. You might have the same goals as Smith and Mapplethorpe, but you won’t have the same results. Somehow, they made it. It sounds like the beginnings of ill-plotted plans of art school dropouts, but somehow, it happened.