They say if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there. Just Kids will jog your memory.
This is touching memoir by the “godmother of punk rock,” Patti Smith, and her relationship with the then equally unknown Robert Mapplethorpe who was to become the iconic photographer.
Smith met Mapplethorpe in New York City, after she had left her loving but insular home in South Jersey, abandoned college, and gave up for adoption the child had by a boy she described as even more callow than herself. Arriving in the city with literally a couple of dollars in her pocket, she embarked on a journey that many of us who in fact remember those times will appreciate: the desire to be an artist, to make a mark on the world under terms our parents could not appreciate.
But this memoir tells of her journey and the loving friendship the two of them enjoyed without self righteousness or sense of entitlement. Mapplethorpe would soon come to grips with his homosexuality but that did not alter the main trajectory of their relationship, which began sexually but evolved into one of where each was the other’s greatest champion.
From the telling of the small vignettes that remind us of how little material possessions meant to many people of this age in the 60s to the larger narrative how each eventually found their way to fame, this book, which won this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction, is a delightful read. Her seminal album “Horses,” which has been recognized as one of the top 100 albums of all time, included a memorable cover photograph by Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. While this album launched her career, which has been as much about her poetry and visual art as music, preceded his fame. He eventually became known as the photographer of images that were as disturbing as they were groundbreaking. Yet in this book, which is obviously sympathetic to him, reveals a sensitive and thoughtful—and yes, somewhat self-absorbed—young man.
They both had a strong religious upbringing, and we see in Just Kids how it shaped their art. We also see how others in New York at that time, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard, Bob Dylan among them, impacted their art. It is a book about a time that some of us remember, however we try to deny it. Or perhaps of a time as we would like to remember it.