Because the night belongs to us...'
(Excerpt lyrics Because the Night, Patti Smith & Bruce Springsteen, 1978)
Smith loved Mapplethorpe and Mapplethorpe loved Smith. This is fact. Did they consummate their love? Wasn't Mapplethorpe homosexual? These questions were the first ones that came to mind for friends when I told them that I was reading the book. Strangely enough, they were not the first questions on my mind. Instead, I was curious about how Smith and Mapplethorpe met, how their relationship played out and how their creative lives intertwined.
Smith addresses all these questions in an exquisite narrative which begins with a description of her early life in Philadelphia - a time when her imagination and love of words develop in the fevers of childhood illness and in the company of her younger siblings. Mapplethorpe is born in the same year as Smith, in 1946, but grows up in Long Island in a Catholic family, in which he is emotionally close to his chain-smoking mother, for whom he manifests his love of beauty by making jewelry.
After an unexpected pregnancy at the age of 19, Smith adopts the baby out and moves to New York. In search of friends and a place to stay, she first meets Mapplethorpe in the apartment where she is expecting to find her friends, who have since moved on. She is told that the lad in the room along the hall may know the whereabouts of her friends:
I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his
eyes and smiled. (Smith, 2012: 25)
Soon, Smith and Mapplethorpe unexpectedly meet again. This time Smith begs Mapplethorpe to pretend to be her boyfriend to save her from an awkward date with a science fiction writer. This is the beginning of their relationship as soul mates and lovers.
Patti Smith's portrait of Mapplethorpe is etched with all his personal complexity. It's also the story of her struggle to find her true creative path. Surprisingly perhaps, she gets her first glimpse of the future at a Doors' concert: 'I felt watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that' (Smith, 2012: 59).
I had picked up Smith's paperback in a bookstore in Port Elliot, called South Seas Books and Trading - one of the few of its kind still in existence. What a pleasure to find two of my heroes were the subject of one book. I felt guilty now about my Mapplethorpe book - the catalogue to an exhibition which I had seen in 1982 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. It's pages had come loose and some now resided in individual plastic sleeves because I had decided to use the imagery as a teaching tool for my art students. I now had an urge to find all the separate pages and the cover of the book, gather them up and take them to an old-fashioned book binder. It seemed sacrilegious that I had let the book disintegrate.
I played some of the Patti Smith interviews on my computer. I listened again to her songs. She still had 'it': the fire, the passion, the heartfelt creativity. I admired her longevity. I danced. I sang along. I felt a long-forgotten joy. Then, I returned to finish the book.
Just Kids is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.