Dancing Barefoot: Patti Smith's Just Kids

A rock icon looks back at her youth

"John McKendry was married to Maxine de la Falaise, a leading figure in New York's high society. John and Maxime provided Robert [Mapplethorpe] with an entrance into a world that was as glamorous as he could have wished for." De la Falaise "was an accomplished cook," and "for every sophisticated course presented, there was equally well-spiced repartee served up by her guests. Those typically seated at her table: Bianca Jagger, Martha and Berry Berenson, Tony Perkins, George Plimpton . . ."

You might flip back to the cover of Just Kids at this point, and at several others, to check if this book is really a memoir by Patti Smith. It reads more like a Susan Sontag genre experiment, or maybe a romance novel—not what we're used to from Smith's songs or her tough early poetry. Yet it's not so strange for her to reach for a foreign style; she started out trying to channel Rimbaud, and turned that into poetic rock and roll of her own, now-famous kind.

She doesn't achieve a similarly successful transformation here; sometimes Just Kids is just arch, with the usual defects of long prose written by poets. But Smith pulls you in—like with her clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played, but by the force of its devotional fervor.

Smith and Mapplethorpe share a photo booth, 1969.
Courtesy Patti Smith
Smith and Mapplethorpe share a photo booth, 1969.

The primary object of her devotion here is Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her lover, friend, and artistic partner, and who died of AIDS in 1989. Just Kids is about their relationship, and also about her life outside that relationship, at least up to her first fame, so this amounts to a partial autobiography, which ought to please fans who've been waiting a long time for one.

Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago, moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, then to south Jersey. The book starts with childhood memories: fevers, mischief, leading a gang of boys in Peter Pan adventures. (Meanwhile, the young Mapplethorpe is learning patience and creation by stringing beads and painting jewelry for his mother.) Smith becomes a little renegade, angry when her mother tells her, because she's "about to become a young lady," to put on a shirt "in front of my men." Teen Smith gets pregnant, gives the baby up, and, with artistic dreams, heads young to the big city where "no one expected me. Everything awaited me."

Mapplethorpe is there, too, at Pratt, studying art. Smith, hungry and walking the streets, runs into him, and they share an idyllic, directionless night ("I was surprised at how comfortable and open I felt with him. He told me later that he was tripping on acid"). Soon, they're sharing their lives—romantically at first, but mostly in mutual dreams of art and fame. Being almost in a frenzy to create, they're both self-involved; one of Smith's early disappointments with Mapplethorpe comes when he tears down their gauzy bedroom "romantic chapel" and substitutes reflective Mylar. (Later, to Smith's surprise, he announces himself gay.) But when the chips are down (poverty, depression, gonorrhea), they take care of one another. When things are good, they dance.

Along the way, they develop careers. Just Kids paints good pictures of the decrepit downtown scene between the hippie and punk eras, and of the artists and entrepreneurs who kept the cultural flame alive (Harry Smith, Sandy Daley, Sam Wagstaff, Sandy Pearlman). We're also shown that the ascendance of these two stars was not propelled completely by their talents, but required social climbing, whether in angling for a prime table at Max's or the more exalted networking described at the de la Falaise dinner party.

As Smith tells it, Mapplethorpe is the more motivated climber, and sometimes she chides him for it: "You're looking for shortcuts," she tells him. "Why should I take the long road?" he replies. But she follows along and makes connections herself. ("What are you doing with Sam Shepard?" Jackie Curtis yells at her.) Though it may be hard for us to imagine that the supremely self-confident Smith ever needed goosing up the ladder, Mapplethorpe clearly gooses her, and she in turn pushes him to move from collages to photography of his own.

There are some great anecdotes, like Allen Ginsberg buying Smith a meal at an automat because he thinks she's a cute boy. (When he worries later how she'll report the encounter, she replies that she'd say he fed her when she was hungry, which is clever and maybe politic of her.) But Just Kids keeps coming back to Mapplethorpe, as Smith did in those lean years. Maybe it is an autobiography, after all, but she couldn't see herself without him, in both senses of the term.

redroso@villagevoice.com

 
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