Just Kids is Patti Smith’s memoir of the relationship between her and Robert Mapplethorpe. It is the realization of a vow made to Mapplethorpe on the day he died when he asked her to write their story.
The longer I think about the book, now about a month after I read it, the more I realize how brave it was to make and fulfil that vow. Just Kids is so well written it is hard to put aside, which is one of the high and sincere compliments one can give to any author.
Throughout the work Smith recounts observations on the practices of artistry, and the observation that I liked the most is that she preferred an artist who transformed his time, not merely mirrored it (p. 69).
Performing on the evening of the day the students at Kent State were shot dead, she found herself experiencing “a nagging sense of guilt,” and writes “I wanted to be an artist but I wanted my work to matter,” (p. 153), to “crystallize the role of the artist as a responsible commentator.” (p. 157) She refined this further after reading Mari Sandoz’s book on Oglala chief Crazy Horse, who “believes that he will be victorious in battle [but only if he does not stop] to take spoils from the battlefield;” (p. 183) the lesson to matters at hand being that one should not take spoils not rightfully yours.
“[S]urrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems[,] I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations. And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple. When you hit a wall, just kick it in.” (p.170)
Mapplethorpe spent many hours studying the Slaves of Michelangelo. “Robert trusted in the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object of a work of art, and thus influence the outer world. He did not feel redeemed by the work he did. He did not seek redemption. He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination.” (p. 61)
There is more than these to the book, for, as if an emotional helix, the book is also the chronicle of a love story that did not end; and because it tells the story so strongly, its main narrative in some ways ends after the middle section, the longest in the book, at the Hotel Chelsea, and the two concluding chapters are a more in the manner of a meditative retrospective.
The structure works effectively. The central section is the largest, 44% of the book, and deals with their time together and the success of each of their approaches to art. The introduction, which sets outs the emotional meaningfulness and the place where it occurred (New York City), is 11%; the second chapter, their meeting, is 20%. Their separation, more accurately, their need to go their own ways, given in the fourth chapter, takes 18%, and the conclusion, which is a peroration, 6%.
Smith also includes images in her text, and the integration is successful. I have been for some time evaluating how much this type integration of artistic forms, especially in poetry, is pertinent, and I continue to consider it valid, despite the views of editors I have worked with or encountered who generally argue the contrary. Smith herself began as a poet and only later became a musician, who, nonetheless, incorporated her poetry into the music. Leonard Cohen took a similar path. I find especially interesting her anecdote of having Lenny Kaye improvise guitar commentary on her poetry at her first public reading. “You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.” “What if I mess it up? What if I screw up the rhythm?” “You can’t …. It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.” (p. 185)
“The Poetry Project [at New York’s St. Mark’s Church] … was a desirable forum for even the most accomplished poets. Everyone from Robert Creeley to Allen Ginsberg to Ted Berrigan had read there. If I was ever going to perform my poems, this was the place to do it. My goal was not simply to do well, or hold my own. It was to make a mark at St. Mark’s. I did it for Poetry. I did it for Rimbaud …. I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.” (p. 180)
In due course she “said goodbye to traditional employment. I never punched a clock again. I made my own time and my own money.” (p. 217)
Two days later I read her prose poem book “The Coral Sea,” which deals of the same love, but antedates the memoir by 14 years. It has touching moments, but seems to me uncertain of its content; but in the preface Smith herself says this is so. For it is part of an artistic prelude to a promise.
Sometimes I’m not convinced that Smith has blended poetry as lyrics always effectively in her music. But then art always has challenges, hardly ever fully met. I find, for instance, “Horses” discursive, but find “Radio Baghdad” excellent; but that could be more my politics than my aesthetics. But my view doesn’t matter, because it is her art that matters to her.