In the mid-sixties musical artist, poet and punk icon Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, still in their teens, are strolling through Washington Square on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Seeing them, a tourist lady turns to her husband saying, “Look, they’re artists!” Her husband replies, “Aw, they’re just kids.” Thus comes the title of this National Book Award-winning memoir of Smith and Mapplethorpe’s friendship, love, and their fierce artistic alliance. Immensely entertaining and chock full of anecdotes from the fabled young avant-garde of New York of that era, Just Kids, is nonetheless a deeply intimate portrayal of a struggle to survive, to eat, to sleep inside, and to advance their art.
Reading Just Kids, we hang out with Patti and Robert at Max’s Kansas City, perform before Andy Warhol at the early CBGB and live at the Chelsea Hotel. Allen Ginsburg makes a play for Smith at the automat, thinking she’s a young man. She has an affair with Sam Shepard and doesn’t even know his name. Robert spends hours at the mirror developing his look for an evening out. She makes some money reselling books. He hustles.
Another meaning, a secondary meaning, can be taken from the book title. “Just” can mean “merely,” but it can also mean “morally right and true,” an odd association with the scandalous Mapplethorpe, but apt in their dedication to their own, and each other’s art. Even with all their adventures Patti and Robert are continuously drawing, writing, photographing, performing, and making—weighing every nickel spent on needed art supplies.
Just Kids is a personal story of two destitute young heroes in a legendary time and place who prevail with and through one another.