The runaway artist is a typical phase of adolescence, and the true measure of one’s devotion to a creative life is the ability to sustain the kind of drive that can keep you going through the hunger, cold, loneliness and (perhaps worst of all) the disillusionment of adulthood. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had this drive in spades, although the route they used to reach their final goals can be seen as both fortuitous and questionable. The last thing an artist wants to be is a “sell out,” but then again, how do you get to make a living from art if you don’t meet the right people at the right time and make a name for yourself? Where is the line drawn between security and freedom? How much of one do you have to give up for the other?
Just Kids doesn’t necessarily answer any of these questions, at least not directly, but I kept thinking about them as I was reading. Although it is a memoir, I read Just Kids for the same reason I read fiction: I wanted to experience something out of my reach, to use my imagination to enter a world that is not only closed to me, but in many ways may never have existed at all. Sorry to sound so enigmatic; what I mean is, though Patti Smith takes you on a trip to the early 70’s in New York, it is her 70s, her New York, and she is often rather oblique in her self-examination, and excessively generous in her descriptions of others. No one ever seems to do anything wrong, and even when they do, that’s ok because it’s all about freedom and art. Never mind sexually transmitted diseases or treading on anyone’s toes, it’s all about the elusive fame and fortune hovering just an exhibition away.
I like Patti Smith, though coming into this book I knew very little about her. I knew she had been friends with Robert Mapplethorpe (who I knew a bit more about, thanks to my own time in art school), and that she was a proto-punk songwriter who had been one of Mapplethorpe’s original photography subjects. Her style is clear if a bit overwrought at times, and her devotion to Mapplethorpe while he struggled with his sexual identity, and later with AIDS, is very touching. I think the book is at its best when it describes the little moments of intense friendship between the two, and at its weakest when Smith finds it necessary to attribute so much of their success to fate and signs. Yes, there are often moments in life that seem fortuitous or somehow preordained, but Smith is a bit heavy with the symbolic meaning of little things.
I really did like this book a great deal, as it allowed me to experience the kind of life I used to fantasize about when I was younger (and still think about now). To learn about the times or even Smith and Mapplethorpe themselves doesn’t really seem to be the point of this memoir; rather it is a memorial to a beloved friend and a tiny capsule capturing an intense and influential relationship between two great artists during a wildly exhilarating time in New York City, when Andy Warhol and Pop were on the way out, and Robert Mapplethorpe and punk rock were taking over. Good times.