New York City, summer, 1969. A hot, sweltering mess full of sweat and musk and bodies colliding against each other, a heady metropolis with a milieu to match. Yet even as the millions of artists and businessmen and intellectuals went on with their lives, history was already unfolding in front of them. In St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, not far from Carnegie Hall, jazz legend John Coltrane was being eulogized. A little further up the street, Andy Warhol had just been shot by model and protégé Valerie Solanas, an event which would shape both of their careers.
And unbeknownst to all, a chance encounter between a young Patti Smith and an unknown by the name of Robert Mapplethorpe would set off a chain of events that would revolutionize music and art forever. Now 40 years later the punk rock poet and impresario tells all in a moving memoir that is part history, part elegy, and all Patti. From their first meeting in the rare bookstore where Smith worked, to the agonizing last days of Mapplethorpe’s life, Smith lays it all out, and little is spared.
There are the usual anecdotes- minor brushes with fame at Warhol’s Factory, run-ins with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and Smith’s first performance at CBGB’s. Yet it is more than just a name-dropping memoir. For the first time, we get to see Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship as friends, muses and even lovers. Through Smith’s eyes, Mapplethorpe’s confusion (sexual and otherwise) and artistic drive become flesh and blood, and her own ambivalence and loyalty to her “first love” is illuminated in ways that academics and historians only dream of.
Readers may be shocked by some of the revelations in Just Kids. But as rock and roll memoirs go, it is a compact one, free of titillation, innuendo, and sexual politics. Art historians will receive a rare glimpse into the young life of an otherwise controversial artist. Musicologists will have the pleasure of a tracing of one musician’s journey to fame. But for lovers of all things music and otherwise, it is an intimate and timeless account of two extraordinary lives, as personal as the Smith family heirlooms that sat on Mapplethorpe’s mantle as he died.
At $18, this is a must have for any audiophile’s bookshelf.