The third time she meets him, she asks him his name. He tells her it is Bob. She says, “You don’t seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?” It is 1967 and for the next 7 years, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe are pretty much inseparable.
Smith tells their story in Just Kids, a fascinating account of loyalty, joy, love and coming of age for two extraordinarily gifted people who at the heart of it are surprisingly ordinary. But it is Smith’s elegant prose, honest reflection and generous spirit that elevates this book to a must read and a National Book Club Winner in 2010.
Just Kids is gently flattering in the way that a best friend who knows you better than anyone would write a book about you. It’s the depth of their relationship that makes Smith’s book a virtual how-to on friendship: listen, praise, defend, accept, laugh, trust and finally release.
It’s no surprise to discover that it’s Patti who encourages Robert to take pictures, and Robert who tells Patti to turn her poems into songs. That’s the kind of impact good friends end up having on one another.
It’s charming to get to eavesdrop on this couple. How they stand back, look at their work and say, “It’s genius, isn’t it?” “Yes,” the other answers, “It is.” While you know the end of their story, you learn that in the beginning Patti drinks Nescafe and Robert loves Mallomars and their favorite dinner is grilled cheese on rye with tomatoes and a chocolate malt.
New York in the sixties is a fine time to be a young and aspiring hippie. Smith evokes the era without trumpeting its excesses at the expense of a more important tale. Though part of the book’s appeal is definitely the front row seat to people most just read about. How ’bout dropping by your regular bar and Janis, Jimi and Gracie are tossing back a few? Pretty heady stuff.
In March, 1989, Patti gets the phone call she has been expecting. After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, Robert Mapplethorpe dies in his loft in New York; he is 43. The last time they speak, he asks, “Will you write our story?” She says, “I will do it.” Just Kids is how she kept her promise.