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Artist of My Life: A Review of “Just Kids” by Patti Smith

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ASU chapter.

When a poet or a lyricist writes a book, it is always undeniably distinct, from its tone to winding, colorful visualizations of life. “Just Kids” by Patti Smith is just the same. While one might expect the novel to be all about the world of music, as Smith herself was dubbed the “punk poet laureate,” it mostly follows her early presence in New York and her close relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. She writes it in dedication to him, capturing his essence in such a way that makes readers feel as if they were a part of that very intimacy.

When they first met, Smith described Mapplethorpe as a romantic partner. They met, in Smith’s own words, “quite by accident,” but remained inseparable after. They lived together in a small box-sized apartment, covering the walls with nondescript religious symbols and their shared artwork. After some time, Smith described that she could feel him pulling away until they finally separated. 

Mapplethorpe moved away, only to realize he was heterosexual. In this change, Smith wrote about the difficulty of abandoning that desire she felt for him, seeing him begin relationships with men, and consequently leaving her behind. Still, the shape of their love was the only thing that changed; not its magnitude. 

Smith captured their time living at the Hotel Chelsea, the background to many of their more powerful connections as an artistic pair, including Alan Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and more. She wrote in S/S10 Magazine that the hotel was home to “junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors, and [e]verybody passing through… is somebody, if not in the outside world.” It was here that Smith began adapting her poetry to song, at Mapplethorpe’s strong encouragement. At the same time, Mapplethorpe was beginning to display his artwork and photography in local galleries. These two experiences coalesced to create an atmosphere of artistic prosperity, something highly valued in Smith’s written word. 

Smith’s pose is highly fluid and poetic, following the pair through their years of friendship. Mapplethorpe, through her eyes, is one of her generation’s greatest artists. Eventually, he settled on the medium of photography, and as Smith’s career progressed, he photographed almost all her album covers and promotions. 

However, despite the rolling beauty Smith’s writing style evokes, there is a faint undertone of loss throughout the work. Mapplethorpe contracted AIDS around the same time as his long-time partner Sam Wagstaff. They both, in their own time, succumbed to the illness. This loss is foreshadowed throughout Smith’s description of their shared life, instances where she slips into past tense, seemingly unintentionally. The later section of “Just Kids” faces this issue head-on, as Smith writes about having to watch Mapplethorpe slip away. Closer to the end, she was excited simply by the sound of Mapplethorpe’s breathing on the phone, even if he couldn’t speak, simply because it meant he was alive. 

“Just Kids” is the perfect dedication to a shared love, changing throughout the years, but manifesting in an unbreakable bond of the creative and soulful. Smith does an excellent job following their shared life, even when the pair is apart. I believe that her goal of doing this for Mapplethorpe, because she knew it was what he would want, was achieved in this beautiful story. It is a triumph to have loved like they did, much less to capture such a love in a novel.

Mia Milinovich is a junior at Barrett, the Honors College, studying English (Literature) and Journalism & Mass Communications. She enjoys writing, reading, listening to garage rock, and going to random, last-minute concerts.