Monday, November 12, 2012

Book: Just Kids

UntitledI wasn't going to read Just Kids. It sounded fine, sure. I figured all my music business friends would love it. I enjoyed the fact that last April a fellow World Book Night giver was handing out copies of it in front of one of the places that Smith & Mapplethorpe rented in my neighborhood.

Our Julie kept pushing me, though. I don't know what turned her on about it but she got it and after she'd read it she kept asking when I was ready to borrow her copy. Should she send it now? How about now? OK, well would now be good? Finally, when I was visiting to take some pictures of her fantastic family, she loaded me up with books and DVDs and among them was Just Kids.

I still wasn't going to read it. Not right away, at least. I'd get to it. Whenever. Just to please her. Then a day came when I was going somewhere and I needed a relatively slim book to fit in the bag I was taking and Just Kids was on top of my to read pile and if fit in the bag so there it went. I still wasn't going to love it. Like it, sure, it was bound to be interesting but I wouldn't love it. I'd listened to Horses. It wasn't my cup of tea.

This book broke my heart. It gave me weird flashes of hope and despair with splashes of guilt and delight to liven things up. My true heart is filled with songs of love and soul mates and great art. Together Patti and Robert had all of those things. They didn't come easily, they weren't straightforward, they weren't always confident in them but they were there nonetheless.

For someone who knew more about Smith it probably wouldn't have been a suspenseful book. For me, not knowing her chronology or Mapplethorpe's, I was paying for the whole seat but only using the edge. When would she start singing? What do you mean she didn't idolize the music business? I thought Mapplethorpe was gay? Didn't he always take photos? The forward gives you the ending. We know from the first pages that he dies. The rest of it, though?  I gritted my teeth and waited it out and it was worth every moment.

Cobbled As an artist, particularly as someone who keeps changing her focus, the journey that Smith & Mapplethorpe went on is fascinating. Every time they were sure that some medium was the one they would work in forever (photography, poetry, collage, song) someone would latch onto something else they were doing instead. The only constant was that they each pushed the other to keep creating. If one was slacking for a period of time the other would nudge and nag and facilitate until they did the one thing that makes art, they sat down and did something. Anything.

As people you could deride them long and loud if you chose to. They were, as she says, just kids. They did stupid things, desperate things, human things. With the benefit of hindsight we can yell at them like we do at the girl in the horror movie who just keeps walking toward the killer hiding in the closet but it won't change the outcome a whit. There is some kind of lesson in forgiveness in the pages. Their friendship wasn't perfect. She disappointed him. He betrayed her. She left him. He mooched off her. It was, however clinical this may sound, prioritized. They worked through and with the disappointment and betrayal because being together, in whatever form, was the most important thing. Well, second most, right after creating art.

It's easy to see that now, I know. It's also easy to see this in the way Smith frames the story. She casually mentions that Robert didn't like explicit sex in stories so she doesn't include any. By tossing that reference in a couple of times then penning a Note to the Reader at the end which emphasizes that she has many stories to tell about him but this is the story he asked her to tell, we're clued in that she's buffed the edges, put a soft filter on, and stoically recorded the good times, even when they were inextricable from the bad ones. Those little hints help the reader dig deeper, guess more wildly about their motivations. She mentions that it was hard for them both when he was hustling but she doesn't drag it out with a twenty page explanation of the one time she thought he'd been killed and he raged at her to leave him alone. Her economical poet's voice lays the information out there without adornment. She worried. He felt compelled. The reader simply has to feel her words to sense the rest.

Even knowing that, in the name of Mapplethorpe's somewhat paranoid and controlling manner, the story has been sanitized I am in love with it. I know it's the unbruised apples and that the truth has a light coat of varnish but I'm grateful for that. The more painful details might have obscured the heroic strength of their connection. I thank Our Julie for persisting until I opened these pages. My only regret is that I'll never read it for the first time again.


  1. I loved this book too. I didn't care for her music either, but I'd always loved his photography. I can remember reading this the first time Dave took me camping...I only hope that he and I can push each other to make some type of art, altho in now way am I the least little bit as talented as any of them.

  2. Don't kid yourself, you're a very talented lady.