This book is neither biography nor autobiography. It is not a book about Robert Mapplethorpe, it is not a book about Patti Smith.
Unlike Suze Rotollo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: a memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, it is not the chronicle of a specific time in a specific place. Instead, this is the transformation of Smith’s emotional experience of her relationship with visual artist Mapplethorpe into an object that communicates those emotions directly to the reader.
Rather than having structured chapters, Just Kids moves in waves of mood, determined by the state of Smith’s relationship to Mapplethorpe at the time. Their relationship is also likely to determine the book’s setting: if they are together, the action takes place in New York, when they are apart we head out, usually to France. Mapplethorpe coheres the characters of the book around him, so the periods that Smith spends alone are investigations of her own artistic growth, her journeys in search of the poets, of Jim Morrison and particularly of Rimbaud.
Mapplethorpe’s developing relationship with his sexuality is also crucial to the tone of the book. Smith examines both Mapplethorpe’s developing homosexual identity, and her own reaction to it, and the result is a sensitive, reflective account of the impact of attitudes to homosexuality and what is often more problematic ground — the impact of homosexuality on those whose lives are immediately affected by it.
Smith writes: “I think having to define his identity in terms of sexuality was foreign to him. His drives towards men were consuming but I never felt loved any less.” Over and over again, Smith reiterated the profound connection she had with Mapplethorpe, and talks about what she calls the “duality” of his sexuality.
In many ways Just Kids offers a convincing challenge to a society in which we are expected to define our identities in terms of our sexuality — Smith identifies the conflict of social pressure to choose one lifestyle or another as something that Mapplethorpe found particularly stultifying.
The arc of his career as an artist is mapped out; he begins as a Catholic boy painting angelic figures, the Madonna and child. Through experimentation with drugs and with his sexuality he progresses through darker, diabolic imagery; through work that deals with taboo, violent edges of human sexual relationships and the BDSM scene until he emerges in the 1980s and 1990s as a portrait artist.
Divine and diabolic give way ultimately to human, and he becomes more balanced and confident in his understanding of himself. In the softer, lighter colours of his later work, he is able to return to Smith, his early muse, mimicking his troubled early mother and child images in his portraits of the singer and her children.
Cameo appearances in the book by the greatest artists and musicians of the 1970s could smack of opportunism, but the very arrangement of events in Just Kids makes it clear that as much as anything else, this is a book about artistic process. Bob Neuwirth’s intense fits of writing; Gregory Corso’s arrogance and neurosis — Smith opens the door on the structures behind one of the most prolific counter-cultural art scenes yet known, offering an explanation of how the energy and feeling of different parts of a movement bled into one another along the shared corridors of the Chelsea Hotel.
At times in Just Kids it does feel quite clear that prose is not Smith’s preferred form. Most of the writing is lyrical and imbued with the images, energy and emotion familiar from her poetry and songs. This provides a highly wrought field, against which occasional pepperings of colloquialism jar: Smith clearly intends to create a specific mood, an almost-fictionalised, elevated New York scene where the events of her narrative unfold. Smith asks a commitment to Romanticism from her readers, and too-modern or too-familiar language occasionally makes it hard to sustain this effort. For those eager to forgive, these moments do lend a note of authenticity; this is not just a dream narrative, but rather an account of real people and real things, told by an author who was also a participant.
Just Kids is a truly extraordinary book in terms of its subject, personal and political content and the manner in which it was written. From the outset it is inevitable that at the book’s conclusion, Robert Mapplethorpe must die of AIDS-related complications. This is not only a Bildungsroman for Smith and Mapplethorpe, and an exciting background to the end of the hippy generation and the birth of punk, Just Kids is a memoir for the AIDS generation: the story of a scene, of sexuality and social attitudes, and a memoir for all the victims of an unanticipated threat.