Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2010: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe weren’t always famous, but they always thought they would be. They found each other, adrift but determined, on the streets of New York City in the late ’60s and made a pact to keep each other afloat until they found their voices–or the world was ready to hear them. Lovers first and then friends as Mapplethorpe discovered he was gay, they divided their dimes between art supplies and Coney Island hot dogs. Mapplethorpe was quicker to find his metier, with a Polaroid and then a Hasselblad, but Smith was the first to fame, transformed, to her friend’s delight, from a poet into a rock star. (Mapplethorpe soon became famous too–and notorious–before his death from AIDS in 1989.) Smith’s memoir of their friendship, Just Kids, is tender and artful, open-eyed but surprisingly decorous, with the oracular style familiar from her anthems like “Because the Night,” “Gloria,” and “Dancing Barefoot” balanced by her powers of observation and memory for everyday details like the price of automat sandwiches and the shabby, welcoming fellow bohemians of the Chelsea Hotel, among whose ranks these baby Rimbauds found their way.
In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the ChelseaHotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work—from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.
In 1967, 21-year-old singer–song writer Smith, determined to make art her life and dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities in Philadelphia to live this life, left her family behind for a new life in Brooklyn. When she discovered that the friends with whom she was to have lived had moved, she soon found herself homeless, jobless, and hungry. Through a series of events, she met a young man named Robert Mapplethorpe who changed her life—and in her typically lyrical and poignant manner Smith describes the start of a romance and lifelong friendship with this man: It was the summer Coltrane died. Flower children raised their arms… and Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, and the summer of love…. This beautifully crafted love letter to her friend (who died in 1989) functions as a memento mori of a relationship fueled by a passion for art and writing. Smith transports readers to what seemed like halcyon days for art and artists in New York as she shares tales of the denizens of Max’s Kansas City, the Hotel Chelsea, Scribner’s, Brentano’s, and Strand bookstores. In the lobby of the Chelsea, where she and Mapplethorpe lived for many years, she got to know William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Johnny Winter. Most affecting in this tender and tough memoir, however, is her deep love for Mapplethorpe and her abiding belief in his genius. Smith’s elegant eulogy helps to explain the chaos and the creativity so embedded in that earlier time and in Mapplethorpe’s life and work. ~ Publisher Weekly