It is a bit uncomfortable for me to call anyone an “icon” because there is always a bit of slavish idolatry in the term that no human being deserves, or should expect. I’ll use it here, in an exceptional sense, due to my certainty that Patti Smith would not expect it.
Patti Smith is an iconic figure, as well as a sadly anachronistic one, because it is quite simply impossible for a young artist to have the sort of career journey as a musician that she did. The powers that be in the industry have lost their patience and artistic perseverance, as well as the sensibility and sensitivity to recognize artists that have a sort of preeminent artistic destiny, which she certainly had. When I mark the important connective events of my own career as an artist, foremost among these will be the honor of having been included on a recording project (Bill Laswell’s Hashisheen spoken word project) with Patti.
Just Kids is much more of a memoir that a biography, in that it is mainly a remembrance of the artistic and personal relationship between Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith and Mapplethorpe were bound together in a sort of artistic halyard knot, supporting and strengthening each other on their journey, one side tightening when the other was too loose, challenging, cajoling, loving and supporting each other through difficult as well as joyous times. The fascinating thing about their bond is that Mapplethorpe had a desperate, aching, almost toxic yearning for fame, while Smith saw herself in her formative years( as an artist), as following in the footsteps of her idols; Baudelaire, Rimbaud, etc, the journey being as fulfilling as whatever final destination at which she might arrive. The bond came in the fact that no matter how different their process was concerning their career path, each one of them was completely uncompromising in the execution of their vision, and held each other to a high level of aesthetic accountability. Mapplethorpe did desperately want to be famous, and powerful, and rich, but he was not going to create shit art to do it.
Smith is remarkably candid concerning her work and motivations in Just Kids. She was on a path to be a poet, and music happened to be incidental to this. A love of music, a love of performing, as well as opportunity created a perfect storm of career-path-choice. Smith is extremely gracious and indicates a good deal of self awareness and suppression of ego in her recognition that the rich, interactive artistic community centered in and around the Chelsea Hotel in the early 70’s created an environment in which she could hone her art in the company of genius. To be more to the point, in the company of benevolent genius. Amongst the artists she befriended and learned from were William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll, and Sam Sheppard, with whom she had a love affair which turned into a friendship that has lasted until this day.
Back to my aforementioned assertion that Smith’s path would be difficult to duplicate today. Smith was able to benefit from an artistic community (and I’m talking about the cool kids folks) that would grant access because an artist was good, creative, vibrant and groundbreaking. This type of camaraderie has all but vanished in the context of a music industry that has set up an environment in which artists often take adversarial, dogs in the pit sort of attitude towards each other. An environment in which every one constantly has their hand out, and the measure of the value collaboration is its potential for economic reward. If Patti Smith were a new artist today, and sold the amount of records she did on her first two releases, Clive Davis or his equivalent would be forced to drop her from the roster. Thank god she became of artistic age in the 70’s and not in the millennium.
Smith draws a picture of Mapplethorpe as a sort of elfin man-boy, caught up in a Gordian knot of Catholic Guilt and sexual identity confusion, all the while swelling with love for beauty and humanity. She describes their relationship as possessing a mutual honor and fidelity that in the end rendered unimportant his acceptance of his homosexuality as any barrier to their loving each other. The love morphed from a passionate artistic affair forged in an erotic fire to a passionate friendship kept alive in the more significant blaze of the light of each other’s souls. They never lost contact throughout their lives, remaining close until Mapplethorpe’s death in March of 1989.
The book is peppered with photos of Smith and Mapplethorpe together, as well as pictures of Smith alone that remain the most spiritually revealing shots that anyone has ever taken of her, including the famous cover for Horses. Just kids is an emotionally honest, transparent snapshot of a love affair, enduring friendship, and an artistic climate the likes of which may never be seen again in the context of popular music. A must read for anyone that loves art and life.