Friday, April 1, 2011

The Continuous Pleasure of "Just Kids"

The 2010 winner of the National Book Award is a modest tome brimming with charm. Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is a memoir of love. It is a love story written for New York and for Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith tells her tale without frills and her matter-of-fact delivery makes her brushes with celebrity more compelling and her relationship with Mapplethorpe incredibly affecting. Her path to success feels almost accidental and incites a certainly misplaced nostalgia for the trials of the past. Smith manages to create a Neverland out of New York, despite the fact that this was actually her life and the challenges she overcame were quite real.

Smith's prose is imbued with a grounded ingenuity. She arrives in NY after a little bit of college, giving a child up to adoptive parents, and with an interest in poetry and art. She not so marches as glides into the New York of '67, the summer Coltrane dies, as she marks it.

Her memories of New York are stippled with gravestones. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and finally, Robert Mapplethorpe. The way she depicts the times, the New York of these artists was roiling with creative opportunity. They lived beneath the surface and made their worlds the center of the universe.

Patti meets Robert by chance on a hot day in Brooklyn. Their second and third encounters are as accidental as the first, but they are the beginning of an enduring love affair and, more importantly, a relationship between artist and muse.

The cursory knowledge I had of Mapplethorpe before this book was of his later photographs. It is impossible to forget his images of nudity and bondage once you have seen them. If the subject matter doesn’t appeal, the beauty of his execution does. His photographs suggest a sexual preference; an assumption that is easily made and not quite accurate.

Patti walks alongside Robert as his sexuality burgeons and changes. His metamorphosis is terrain she does not play a part in and yet her embrace is complete. “Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art,” she writes. “He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace.” Smith’s rendering of Mapplethorpe’s personal expansion is incredibly gentle and a tribute to their bond as well as to her patience and desire to understand him.

Reading about the New York of 40 years ago today is delicious. The cost of living makes your mouth water and the casual encounters Smith has with artistic legends are simple and savory. Smith blossoms separately from Mapplethorpe, but their work was in constant conversation with the other’s. Smith lists toward the light, while Mapplethorpe probes at the darkness. "Just Kids" is in many ways a work of poetry and though it falters at times in its center, its artistry and emotion make it an overwhelming success.

The morning I took “Just Kids” out of my purse, I dined on eggs in the West Village. Looking up after ordering, I saw a woman with a cappuccino in front of her, and a notebook. She had a pen on the table but was reading from the book and smiling from time to time. The restaurant was tiny and I didn’t want to invade her privacy, but I whispered to my companions, “It’s her! It’s Patti Smith!” The serendipity of the moment felt like a slice of the old New York she knew. The coincidence of the sighting was a moment of urban grace, which wrapped us up in the world she wrote of.