It seems appropriate, on the footsteps of my last post on literary best friends, to write something about Patti Smith’s gorgeous, tender and moving memoir, Just Kids.
I was at work on the night of the National Book Awards, and given that I work at a bookstore, it’s no surprise someone had opened an automatically updating search for all National Book Award news on one of our computers. I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Smith’s memoir won the award for best Non-Fiction, even though I hadn’t yet read her book (my copy, picked up at a HarperCollins publisher meeting–thank you!–was in my ever-growing To-Be-Read stack). Shortly after Just Kids won the National Book Award and started selling like crazy, I took a weekend trip to Seattle, and read the paperback on my plane flight west and then in the airport, waiting to return to Cambridge, while snow fell so heavily that the tails of the planes parked at the gates a few hundred feet from the terminal were obscured by the driving wall of white.
This was easily one of the best books I read this year. Just Kids is rocker, artist and poet Patti Smith’s moving memorial to her lifelong friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and it is also a memoir that captures the musical and artistic life of New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s, a world of just-after-Warhol, peopled by the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and so many other artists and musicians, an extraordinary number of whom died young. Just Kids is also a book about art, about what it means to be an artist, to open and explore oneself in the act of creation, and about the tangled lines of art, ambition and worldly success.
This book is so open and tender that reading it feels a lot like being given a gift. From their initial chance encounters in New York City to their final conversation, days before Robert died of AIDS, Patti and Robert’s friendship is full of the deepest kinds of love and respect, and this book is a creation that comes directly out of those emotions, even as it captures the wider panorama of a generation of artists and musician and a certain era in our artistic past.
There are many memoirs written following the death of friends and loved ones (particularly when these friends were fellow writers or artists)–Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Mentor, by Tom Grimes, or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It makes sense to me to want to write about a friendship after that friend has passed away, maybe because I think of writing as an act of creation and also as an act of conversation, so that when one writes so specifically both to and about a dear friend (as Smith writes both to and about Mapplethorpe) one is very much with him or her, and the object of the writing becomes present as an almost-living subject once again.
Some of the most beautiful passages in Just Kids are those in which Smith looks closely at her friendship with Mapplethorpe, and at Robert himself, and writes with poetic delicacy and great perceptiveness about her struggle to understand him and his art. This struggle, in and of itself, is very much an act of love, but what Smith shows so beautifully is how this attempt to wholly comprehend someone is separate from the unconditional love one human being can feel for another, the kind of love found in the best forms of friendship.
There is a moment, late in the book, when Robert is already very ill, that captures a great deal of this for me. Patti and Robert are together in Los Angeles, and he is going to shoot the cover for her latest album (the iconic image from her first album, Horses, is also one of his photographs). Smith, who was at the time pregnant with her second child, describes the shoot:
Robert was pale and his hands shook as he set up to take the portrait before a cluster of dying palms in the full sun. When he dropped his light meter, Edward knelt to pick it up. Robert was not feeling well, but somehow he marshaled his energies and took the picture. Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him, and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.
It is a simple photograph. My hair is braided like Frida Kahlo’s. The sun is in my eyes. And I am looking at Robert and he is alive.
This book, which I loved, is in many ways a simple book. It is Patti Smith, looking at Robert Mapplethorpe, and they’re both so beautifully alive.