There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Evocations of time past need not be sentimental or even sad; some merely attempt to retrieve, however briefly, a lost treasure. Such is the effect of the influential punk singer Patti Smith’s new memoir of her great collaboration—and great love affair—with Robert Mapplethorpe. They teamed up on individual works throughout much of their artistic careers, and until his death from AIDS in 1989, their lives intertwined. The book, Just Kids, brings him back to life, not just the Mapplethorpe of the obscenity scandals or the world-famous photographer of homoerotic subjects, but Mapplethorpe the young, whimsical yet driven, aspiring, and impoverished artist, who yearned for fame and lived, beginning in the late 1960s, with the hippie-poet who would become an internationally renowned musician. Early on they made a pact to help each other, and Smith describes how they lived it—as well as her hardscrabble youth in southern New Jersey and Philadelphia—in detailed, slightly eccentric prose. As a young woman, she fled factory work for New York City, where she soon found herself hungry, penniless, and sleeping in parks. She met Mapplethorpe, and he helped support her by hustling for money, contracting gonorrhea and trench mouth in the process. Despite the roughness of their bohemian life, they had each other and were inseparable from the moment she abandoned vagrancy to live with him in Brooklyn. They lacked money and devoted themselves to art, to the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso who inhabited the Chelsea Hotel, to haunts frequented by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Grace Slick, to nights with Andy Warhol’s entourage at Max’s Kansas City. Smith chronicles Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality, his immensely beneficial amour with his patron Sam Wagstaff, and the beginnings of her musical career at CBGB. At one point, Smith and Mapplethorpe shared a gallery show whose title could easily grace this book: “Diary of a Friendship.” “What will happen to us?” she once asked Mapplethorpe, and he answered: “There will always be us.” Indeed, it is uncanny how early each recognized the other’s talents: She urged him to try photography; he pushed her toward rock music. “Nobody sees as we do Patti,” he told her. Dying of AIDS years later, he rued that they had never had children. Despite her romances with the playwright Sam Shepard and others and her eventual marriage to the MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, Smith and Mapplethorpe remained friends and mutual muses in a profound, psychological way—a chapter near the end is titled “Separate Ways Together.” “Robert photographed me wearing Fred’s flight jacket for the cover of our projected single ‘People Have the Power.’ When Fred looked at the photograph, he said, ‘I don’t know how he does it, but all his photographs of you look like him.’” Just Kids is testimony to Mapplethorpe’s continued place in Smith’s heart, capturing the strength and sustenance they derived from each other. Smith puts it plainly: “He was the artist of my life.”