Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946, at a time when “the iceman” and “the last of the horse-drawn wagons” could still be seen on city streets being a moment of pictographic collision between the imagery of the yesteryear and the modern future . “Just Kids” is named so because it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, completely unknown and perfectly bohemian, to the point in which a tourist couple in Washington Square Park argued about whether they were worth a snapshot in the early autumn of 1967. The woman thought they looked like artists while the man disagrees, saying dismissively, “They’re just kids.”
Evidently it seems difficult for Smith to turn the clock back to that innocent time, especially after the events that occur. this difficulty is that “Just Kids” symbolizes and grapples with.
Smith describes the day that Mapplethorpe creates his exquisite androgynous image of her in white shirt, black pants and black jacket for the cover of her “Horses” album. She reminisces about her style, which was full of references explicitly showcasing them in her book. A Patti Smith calendar would include Joan of Arc’s birthday, the day of the Guernica bombing and the day she, as a young bookstore clerk, sat among Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick in a bar feeling “an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people.” All the artists who shaped Ms. Smith’s persona, Bob Dylan is arguably the one she worshiped most.
A moving part of the book is her description of the first time she sets eyes on Mapplethorpe, in the back bedroom of a former Brooklyn apartment belonging to some friends. Thus fate introduced Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe, who would become roommates, soul mates, friends, lovers and muses. Strictly speaking they were never starving artists, but the romanticism of “Just Kids,” and their tenancy in the tiniest room at the Chelsea Hotel, brings them pretty close to that ideal. They went to museums able to afford only one ticket. (The one who saw the exhibition would describe it to the one who waited outside.) They went to Coney Island, able to afford only one hot dog. (Ms. Smith got the sauerkraut.) They loved the same totems and ornaments and flourishes; they valued the same things, though in different ways.
Although much of “Just Kids” unfolds before Mapplethorpe did the taboo-busting, shock-laden photographic work for which he is best remembered. (“I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality,” Ms. Smith writes of his sadomasochistic imagery.) And it occurs before his illness. (He died of AIDS in 1989.) Of the two of them it was Ms. Smith who made her mark first. Like “Chronicles,” “Just Kids” carries its author to the verge of fame but stops right there on the brink, so that its innocence is never compromised by circumstances too surreal for the reader. This book concentrates purely on the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, achieving its aura of the sacrosanct by insisting that the later, more tragic and fraught part of Ms. Smith’s life story belongs elsewhere.