Patti Smith

Just Kids

“I had to stick by him. We had our vow. It meant we were not alone.”

In his characteristic clarity, German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm identified human need as a desire to overcome our separateness from one another. I feel this deeply and yet I’m bolstered by something novelist Marilynne Robinson noted: there is a connectiveness in mutual loneliness.

Patti Smith‘s (born December 30, 1946) Just Kids is a story of friendship, love, art, age, and a thunderous narrative on the connective sinews of loneliness. It’s the story of Smith’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the comfort and inspiration they absorbed from their communion.

The two met in 1967, poor but sucking strongly on hope, and quickly clasped something in one another. When Mapplethorpe showed Smith his early drawings they resonated with Smith’s mental figurations.

There were a set of discs intertwining the words EGO LOVE GOD merging them with his own name; they seemed to recede and expand over his flat surfaces. As I stared at them, I was compelled to tell him of my nights as a child seeing circular patterns radiating on the ceiling.

He opened a book on Tantric art.

“Like this?” he asked.

“Yes.”

I recognized with amazement the celestial circles of my childhood. A mandala.

I was particularly moved by the drawing he had done on Memorial Day. I had never seen anything like it. What also struck me was the date: Joan of Arc’s feast day. The same day I had promised to make something of myself before her statue.

I told him this, and he responded that the drawing was symbolic of his own commitment to art, made on the same day. He gave it to me without hesitation and I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust.

The creative hopefuls moved in together and existed one hourly wage away from complete poverty.1 Mapplethorpe was initially a collage artist who finally found photography,2

Smith morphed her poetic talents into singing/songwriting. For a time, they lived and thrived in this “space of time.”

I love those words, “space of time.” That is exactly what the two emerging artists created, a space between them that moved as they move.

At night, after trudging through the snow, I found him waiting for me in our apartment, ready to rub my hands to make them warm. We seemed always in motion, heating water on the stove, unlacing my boots, hanging up my coat, always with one eye on the drawing he was working on. He would stop for a moment if he noticed something. Most of the time, it seemed as if the piece was fully formed in his mind. He was not one for improvising. It was more a question of executing something he saw in a flash.

Smith’s elegant, emotional lines about the space she and Mapplethorpe created remind me of one of my favorite Hermann Hesse poems;

Do you know this too?
You are in the middle of a cheerful party,
When a sudden stillness takes hold of you,
And you hastily have to leave the happy hall.

Back in your bed you lay awake
like someone suffering from a sudden heartache.
The fun and laughter disappear like smoke
And you break into tears: do you know this too?

From “Do You Know This Too?”

The space between Smith and Mapplethorpe was forged by a mutual need to exhale themselves into art, an empathy for their fragile artistic egos, and even by their daily habits.

There were days, rainy gray days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a Leica the view grainy and immobile. We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed. We lay in each other’s arms, still awkward but happy, exchanging breathless kisses into sleep… Sometimes I would awaken and find him working in the dim light of votive candles. Adding touches to a drawing, turning the work this way and that, he would examine it from every angle. Pensive, preoccupied, he’d look up and see me watching him and he’d smile. That smile broke through anything else he was feeling or experiencing – even later, when he was dying, in mortal pain.

This space of time absorbed their complexity but it began to crumble under the weight of Mapplethorpe’s unacknowledged homosexuality and increasingly unrealized creative expression. “I could tell he was somewhere else” Smith writes as the narrative seeps with pain, “our wordless nights made me restless.”3

In retrospect, the summer of 1968 marked a time of physical awakening for both Robert and me. I had not yet comprehended that Robert’s conflicted behavior related to his sexuality. I knew he deeply cared for me, but it occurred to me that he had tired of me physically. In some ways I felt betrayed, but in reality it was I who betrayed him. I fled our little home on Hall Street, Robert was devastated, yet could still not offer any explanation for the silence that engulfed us.

Robert Mapplethorpe's cover photo for Patti Smith's album "Horses" featured in Patti Smith's "Just Kids" in the Examined Life Library.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s cover photo for Patti Smith’s album “Horses.” Source: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

As Robert’s health deteriorated rapidly Smith returned and moved him to the Hotel Chelsea where she hoped they could stay in return for donated art, neither had any money.4

I saw there next to him in silence. How different the light in the Chelsea Hotel seemed as it fell over our few possessions, it was not natural light, spreading from the lamp and the overhead bulb, intense and unforgiving, yet it seemed filled with unique energy. Robert lay comfortably and I told him not to worry, promising to come back soon. I had to stick by him. We had our vow. It meant we were not alone.

Much, much more happens and anyone who knows the story of Mapplethorpe and New York in the 1970s and 80s can guess what. Just Kids is so forceful and beautifully written. I stagger at Smith’s kind, clear judgment of Mapplethorpe, to be seen thus… What a gift these two gave one another. Hands outstretched and met across our human separateness.

The title of the book comes from a small but potent scene.

One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs. We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed and he affectional squeezed my hand.

“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”

“Oh, go on,” he shrugged, “They’re just kids.”

Upon my second read (some books need nurturing) I realized Smith the narrator is no longer that unabashed youth being photographed. She is now the old woman. That youth is gone forever. “Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself?” she states rather than asks.5

Illustration for A. A. Milne's "When We Were Very Young" in the Examined Life Library.
Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard from A. A. Milne’s poem “Independence” in When We Were Very Young.

Couple the warmth of Smith’s memories with Grace Paley’s poetry on place , Joan Didion’s essays on the shattered American dream of the 1960s and the soothing falseness of hope. And my own study of the mind of youth as it registers the world and the physical and mental spaces of memory.

 

Woolgathering