When I picked up Just Kids, the story of rocker Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I had no idea who each was except for the vague recognition due to their presence in our cultural consciousness. It kept surfacing in reading lists and conversations at the pubic library that I worked in, and when I inadvertently listened to the Smith’s haunting cover of Words of Love on the Buddy Holly cover compilation, Rave On, I interpreted this last sign as a form of serendipity.
The book spans the mid-1940s, beginning with the birth of Smith and Mapplethorpe through the very late 1980s, at the advent of his death. The book unfolds gradually first recounting Smith’s childhood, then Mapplethorpe’s, their artistic burgeoning, meeting, and life and artistic growth together. The story contained within the two covers is a cultural artifact at the very least, and Smith builds a time machine for us and distributes a free pass into the New York underworld of artists, poets, singers, vagabonds, prostitutes, junkies and lost souls. We as readers are allowed to recline as Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin navigate through “Me and Bobby McGee”. We mourn with the Chelsea Hotel community for the death of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Smith becomes our child, us the mother as she describes going to sleep starving, leaving me wanting to jump into the pages to share my midnight snack.
Amidst the turbulence and permutation of the decades, the relationship between Mapplethorpe and Smith is steadfast. It is one of chemical, of the indescribable where no apologies are needed.
Being born in the 1980’s, I could relate with little of the literal content–the people, the places, the air of the 1960s-70s. All this is of no consequence. The story of Mapplethorpe and Smith is universal to all beings. You don’t need to know them, their history or even their work because what their tale expresses is ubiquitous to the soul. One being needing another, offering a safety net by allowing transmutation as an artist, friend, lover and as the two have shown us, something beyond classification.