Just Kids by Patti Smith is a memoir about her years before she became famous, during the turbulent years when she was in a loving, lovely, and often complex relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. That is on the surface. On another level, this memoir serves as an homage to a particular place–Brooklyn and the lower west side of Manhattan–and time–the 60s into the 70s.
All of the players enter the stage at some point. From Andy Warhol to Allen Ginsberg to Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin. All the essential places are mentioned as well. Coney Island. Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s. Horn and Hardart. The Strand. And the historical events that held deep relevance at the time including the first moon walk, the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, the Manson family murders, the deaths of various rock icons.
These all weave in and out of a story about a young girl who fell in love with a young boy and how the two grew as artists. Smith’s poetic voice comes through the prose as she shares the vulnerability the couple experienced, how they fought to fulfill their artistic visions and experienced conflict when one vision did not align itself with the other.
There is a lot of conflict, obviously, as Mapplethorpe’s own sexuality becomes a point of conflict, as Smith tries to find enough work to support them both, as sacrifices and compromises are made to the greater good. Aside from the famous names, there are others who come into and out of their lives and not a single person mentioned is wasted for the meaning they give to the story is either explicitly revealed or blatantly implied.
However, above all else, this is a love story about a boy and a girl and how, even as they grew apart, they maintained that loving connection one with the other. There are a few photographs shared throughout the story although anyone hoping to see some of Mapplethorpe’s more salacious works will have to look elsewhere. That Smith addresses his works at all is a testament to her deep rooted love and acceptance and her utmost honesty for she expresses clearly that some of his images her discomfiting for her. But the two so beautifully love one another through the differences, embracing rather than denying them. A love story, a pure and simple love story, if love is ever truly pure let alone simple. And a celebration of relationship, of art, of life. A joy to read.