Some thoughts on Just Kids by Patti Smith

About a year ago, when I first heard that Patti Smith had written Just Kids, a book about her long friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, I immediately flashed back to 1995.

I was working at a Borders in Philadelphia when Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe: A Biography came out. I never actually read Morrisroe’s book, but I followed the reviews of it as I waited to answer questions at the information stand. And I remember reading Patti Smith’s reaction to it; she felt that Morrisroe’s portrait missed too much of her friend Robert.

“She’s done it,” I thought, upon hearing of Just Kids. Fifteen years later, she has set the record straight.

A longtime fan of Smith’s music, I knew that I wanted to read her memoir. It simply had to be interesting, smart, daring – just like Smith’s music and Mapplethorpe’s photographs. But I put it off in and put it off again, feeling vaguely guilty about not reading so many other books in recent years.

In early October 2010, about a week before the National Book Award finalists were announced publicly, I got an email listing Just Kids among the final five in nonfiction. The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, of which I am president, had been chosen as the site for the NBA announcement, so I had to know the titles in advance to prepare for the ceremony. I was itching to tell someone – anyone – about Just Kids being a finalist, but I managed to keep my mouth shut.

A week or so later, I read Just Kids while on a physical and emotional journey. My mother had been having some health problems, so over a long weekend I flew to Kentucky from Savannah to be with her. I read the first half of Smith’s book on my flights up, the second half on my way home.

As I said, I was prepared for a good book, but I was not prepared for the soft but vivid prose, for the elegantly constructed sentences, for such a powerful and unironic embrace of art and life. Of a childhood trip to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Smith writes: “I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings can create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”

I was also unprepared to read of Smith’s long journey to music; both she and Robert – one of the first people she met when she moved adventurously to New York City – explored a variety of media before finding the art forms that would make them famous.

The passion of Smith and Mapplethorpe – for art and for each other – is inspiring on many levels. It’s hard to imagine a better book than Just Kids for aspiring artists to read. I’ve long believed that luck is the residue of design, and I can’t imagine better evidence of that than Smith’s book: bold intentional moves again and again lead to amazing serendipitous developments.

As many other readers and reviewers have already noted, Just Kids also serves as a chronicle of a Manhattan that many of us never knew – a seedier city where conversation and passion were more important than real estate.

When I first saw Mapplethorpe’s work, he was already an icon, his name synonymous with gay identity and sexual liberation. So reading of his youthful sexual confusion was shocking (more shocking to me than the explicit work he would eventually do), but his innocence pours from every page of Smith’s book. He was just one of many kids of that era who were trying to find themselves, with no clear models to follow.

As I neared the end of Just Kids, knowing Robert would die of AIDS at 42, my mind kept circling back – no, leaping back – to Flannery O’Connor, who died at 39 after years of chronic, debilitating lupus. Since I have been involved with the Childhood Home and teaching O’Connor stories semester after semester at Armstrong Atlantic State University, O’Connor is never far from my mind.

It seems almost silly to compare Mapplethorpe and O’Connor. The differences are obviously stark. But Mapplethorpe’s art was haunted by the Catholic imagery and rites of his youth, as was O’Connor’s. Both artists found redemption at the extremes of human experience.

Smith writes in Just Kids of her own fascination with Rimbaud, another artist who died young, at just 37. But Rimbaud gave up art much earlier, when he was about 20.

By contrast, Smith’s first album Horses didn’t come out until she was almost 30. She wrote a number of books of poetry over the years, but nothing to prepare us for the virtuosic prose of Just Kids, published when she was 63.

Youthful passion and the pressures of debilitating illness can contribute to great art, as Just Kids shows. But there’s something to be said for a long, healthy life of constant daring.