Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Just Kids: the book Patti Smith hoped people would read and say was good
I have long been an admirer, if not an actual fan, of Patti Smith. Musically, that brand of New York punk has always left me a bit cold, though I am in awe of its spunk and its energy, and also the poetry at its heart. In truth, I have always felt faintly overwhelmed by Smith, as one of its gutsiest performers.
So when a friend convinced me to read Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her affair with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I wasn’t expecting it to really speak to me.
How wrong could I have been? This book moved me to tears. Buckets of them. And not just because of the tragedy of Mapplethorpe’s early death — though that made me terribly sad — but because it really shook me up. It was cathartic reading.
Some might enjoy her story for its picture of the New York art scene in the 1970s, which was pretty out there and full of amazing characters. But for me, what was really moving about this book was its story of profound connection between two people, both of whom epitomise artistic integrity.
Reading about the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that they were fated to meet. Their relationship was intrinsic to their development as artists — especially for Smith, I think, as the less overtly ambitious of the two. Though I suspect she would have found her way, her confidence as an artist was much more fragile than his, and he gave her huge amounts of encouragement and belief.
Whatever drew them to each other, their initial encounters were certainly uncanny. Mapplethorpe was really the first person Smith met when she moved to New York — albeit briefly, until by sheer coincidence he again turned up to save her from an awkward situation — and became arguably the most important.
What also strikes you about them is the egalitarian nature of the relationship. He was domestic and nurturing, and in a scene peppered with phonies, they had a true meeting of minds.
There is no doubt that Smith and Mapplethorpe were innately talented, but her story reminds you that creativity is largely about commitment and passion. Their devotion to their work — and to living creatively — is all the more inspiring because they are both so unpretentious about it.
Perhaps what surprised me most about this book was its lack of cool; as Smith says, they were “too busy trying to pull enough money together to buy lunch” to be conscious of making a grand political or cultural statement.
Though their sexual relationship couldn’t last — Mapplethorpe eventually settled on his homosexuality — their connection retained its purity. It was deeply romantic and it sustained them both.
As you may already know, Smith is pretty legendary among mothers for letting her career take a backseat for a time while raising her daughters. As her much-adored husband died not long after Mapplethorpe, she also spent those years dealing with enormous grief, something she says has "put her on another plane" far more than mysticism or even intelligence.
After her album Gone Again was launched, and before she had written Just Kids, a 50-year-old Smith said: I'm very proud of my new record, and I wouldn't put it out unless I was. The last thing I want to do is inflict a piece of mediocre art on the planet. But I've also, as a single mother of two children, got practical reasons I've never had to consider before. I still have a part to play in rock 'n' roll, and I'll do that, but I'd love to write a book that people would read and say was good.
I read that book. And, yes, it was 'good'. But it was also so much more than that.