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BOOK REVIEW: Just Kids Illustrated Edition by Patti Smith

| 19 June 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Just Kids Illustrated Edition by Patti Smith

Bloomsbury Publishing
October 2019
Hardcover, $59.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction Books / Biographies & True Stories

100% Rocking

Young love is precious.
It is thirty years since photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe’s passing, and a decade since Patti Smith wrote their love story, but these heightened emotions remain visceral and true in their works. Just Kids is a heartfelt memoir celebrating the couple’s relationship as young bohemians, artists and muses, and lovers-turned-friends.

Dear Robert,
Often I lie awake and I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together…
The other afternoon, when you fell asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.

Before Patti Smith was known as the Godmother of Punk she was a young woman who left Chicago for New York City. She met a guy she described as a “hippie shepherd boy” with tousled curls from Long Island. The pair would live together and create different forms of art. They vowed never to leave each other and Mapplethorpe’s dying wish was for Smith to tell their story. It took time, but it was worth the wait.

I had asked, even begged him so many times before I left to tell me what he was thinking about, what was on his mind. He had no words for me.
I realized, looking at these sheets of paper that he had gone deep within himself on my account and had attempted to express the inexpressible. Imagining the anguish that drew him to write this letter brought me to tears.
“I open doors, I close doors,” he wrote. He loved no one, he loved everyone. He loved sex, he hated sex. Life is a lie, truth is a lie. His thoughts ended with a healing wound. “I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.” His manifesto as an artist.

This book was published in 2010 and has been reissued as an illustrated version in a lovely hardcover edition. It features precious photographs of Smith and Mapplethorpe together, as well as some of their artworks. Smith’s prose earned her a well-deserved National Book Award when it was first released. The work treated readers with an intimate look at these two young creatives living through the summer of love and into the seventies, a decade they more or less owned. The addition of extra material as well as Smith’s new foreword makes this tome all the more precious.

The writing of Just Kids came about because I promised Robert that I would write it. I made this vow to him not knowing how I would accomplish it. I had never written such a book before, and it took a very long time. More than once, I set it away, daunted by the responsibility of such a task. Yet I always felt him with me, supportive and persistent, pressing me to continue. I had hopes that it may be received kindly but the reception far surpassed my modest wishes.

It’s hard not to be inspired by reading this touching work. Heck, I defy people not to pack up and move to New York, Smith tells their story with such finesse. At times they were hungry and had to hustle for food, and you feel like you’re right there with them at every step. She also describes their encounters with some great minds of the time: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, and more. The whole thing is like an evocative fable, a love letter to a bygone era and a heady chronicle of how two fledgling artists found their voices.

Robert would greet me, impatient to show me something he was working on. One evening, having read my notebook, he designed a totem for Brian Jones. It was shaped like an arrow, with rabbit hair for the White Rabbit, a line from Winnie the Pooh, and a locket-sized portrait of Brian. We finished it together and hung it over our bed.
“Nobody sees as we do, Patti,” he said again. Whenever he said things like that, for a magical space of time, it was as if we were the only two people in the world.

The prose includes chapters where the pair share their first digs together and live at the Hotel Chelsea, plus their nights out at Max’s Kansas City. At times Smith seems young and naïve, but that also feels like her own raw honesty shining through. The pair stay true to their authentic and artistic selves dabbling in: drawing, painting, jewellery-making and photography, until they discover their niches. In Mapplethorpe’s case, it was provocative and sensual photographs, while Smith would become a musician and record the seminal Horses album. That record cover was a collaboration of theirs, shot by Mapplethorpe, with Smith channelling his spirit.

The clouds kept moving back and forth. Something happened with his light meter and he became slightly agitated. He took a few shots. He abandoned the light meter. A cloud went by and the triangle disappeared. He said, “You know, I really like the whiteness of the shirt. Can you take the jacket off?”
I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style, I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow…
He took twelve pictures that day.
Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. “This one has the magic,” he said.
When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.

Just Kids is one insightful journey into the world of two creative geniuses. It’s a story that has its fair share of troubles and hard times, but also remains incredibly hopeful and vibrant. Just Kids is like being whisked away into the strong and loving arms of some gifted artists as they take you on a magical mystery tour through time. Buckle up…

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Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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