In a recent New York Observer article, Patti Smith is credited as suggesting New York City is no longer the place for young artists looking to make it. She says, “New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling…New York City has been taken away from you.” And for those of us who’ve been there or are there now, we know the cost of living and the high rent is not very welcoming for young artists who are not already independently wealthy or who are not willing to toil away at some full time job with the hope of having free time and energy to devote to their chosen art.
The New York City of Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids stands in sharp contrast to her appraisal of the city today. The focus of the memoir is on Smith’s friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two met by chance in the summer of 1967 and quickly became inseparable, making a vow to always be there for each other until they could stand on their own. The title comes from a lovely anecdote where in Washington Square Park a woman told her husband in reference to Smith and Mapplethorpe, “Take their picture. I think they’re artists,” and he responded, “Oh go on. They’re just kids.” At the time, the husband was right—they were just kids, but kids who were on the path to becoming famous artists.
The New York they experience is one where artists could live (though sometimes go hungry) on very little money, one where the Lower East Side was still a dangerous place, and one where you could trade artwork for a room at the Chelsea Hotel. It’s in this New York that everyone seems to be somebody, and Smith and Mapplethorpe make friends with the various writers, musicians, and artists who surround them. Allen Ginsburg mistakes Smith for a man and buys her a coffee and a sandwich; Jim Carroll hustles alongside Mapplethorpe, though Carroll hustles for drugs and Mapplethorpe for rent money; Smith and Mapplethorpe make their way into Andy Warhol’s Factory scene through the backroom of Max’s Kansas City; Smith is introduced to Janis Joplin, talks outside of Electric Lady studio with Jimi Hendrix, and runs into Sam Shepard on the street after only knowing him as “Slim,” drummer for The Holy Modal Rounders. The encounters with famous or soon-to-be famous are numerous, though in no way is Smith name-dropping or showing off. This is simply what New York was like; this was her life.
However, the book isn’t really about New York City, though its role in the development of these two artists is certainly important. This book is ultimately a portrait of a friendship, one that is complex but stable. Though they started out as lovers, the two continued to support each other after Mapplethorpe discovered his homosexuality. From the first apartment they shared together where they had a small bedroom that Mapplethorpe was constantly transforming, to the last apartment they shared together where they each had their own separate space, where they each had moved on to dating others, there was a mutual respect and support for each other as both human beings and as artists. It was Smith who encouraged Mapplethorpe to pursue photography, and it was Mapplethorpe who wouldn’t let Smith give up her writing, collecting up the pieces she would toss on the floor, and later being very proud of her success. Smith describes a time when they were walking together and heard “Because the Night” playing at one store after another as they passed by. She writes:
Robert was smiling and walking in rhythm with the song. He took out a cigarette and lit it. We had been through a lot…What he wanted for himself, he wanted for us both. He exhaled a perfect stream of smoke, and spoke in a tone he only used with me—a bemused scolding—admiration without envy, our brother-sister language.
“Patti,” he drawled, “you got famous before me.”
The final section of the memoir, “Holding Hands with God,” picks up years after Smith had left the city. It’s 1986 and she was living in Detroit with her husband Fred Sonic Smith and the two were expecting their second child together. It also happens to be when Mapplethorpe is diagnosed with AIDS. This final section follows their relationship through his death on March 9, 1989. The language, that is immediate and engaging throughout the memoir, becomes especially poetic here: “He would be a smothering cloak, a velvet petal. It was not the thought but the shape of the thought that tormented him. It entered him like a horrific spirit and caused his heart to pound so hard, so irregularly, that his skin vibrated and he felt as if he were beneath a lurid mask, sensual yet suffocating.”
And though death is a major aspect of this book—not just Mapplethorpe’s, but the various cultural figures at the time, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, to Candy Darling and Andy Warhol—there is something amazingly life-affirming about this book. According to the acknowledgments, Smith promised Mapplethorpe that she would one day write their story. There is something about that promise being kept, something about the beauty of this deep friendship, the care that existed between these two that is uplifting.
Gina Myers is the author of the full-length poetry collection A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009). A one-time New Yorker, she currently lives in Saginaw, MI where she is the Book Review Editor at NewPages and occasionally blogs at A Sad Day for Sad Birds.