Thursday, December 7, 2017

Just Kids

In 2010, NPR interviewed Patti Smith upon the release of Just Kids. Smith met the 21-year-old Robert Mapplethorpe in the summer of 1967, both children of religious upbringings, both influenced by ideas about art and outsider culture. Smith writes of staying up late to paint and listen to records in their shared apartment on Hall Street in Brooklyn, but when they first became friends, they were so poor, they sometimes slept on the street. 

As Smith describes him in Just Kids, Mapplethorpe was striking, a "Hippie shepherd boy" with dark curls. She said the pair — two-of-a-kind, lanky outsiders who shared artistic drive and a physical connection — "fulfilled a role for each other." The following are excerpts from the NPR interview.

"As it says in the book," Smith says, "we woke up knowing that we were no longer alone." They also influenced each other's art. But Smith stops short of taking credit for guiding Mapplethorpe to the medium that made him famous. "I said, 'You should take your own photographs.' I didn't mean for him to become a photographer," she says. "Once he started taking pictures, he just fell in love with photography."

Mapplethorpe took the iconic cover photograph for Smith's first album, Horses, which came out in 1975. "The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one," Smith says. "I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about 12 pictures. By the eighth one he said, 'I got it.' "

In Just Kids, Smith writes that when she looks at the photo today, "I never see me. I see us."
"Really, when I met Robert, we were unformed. That's why I called the book Just Kids," Smith says. "I really want people to comprehend that we were young. And it took a while to become who we evolved into. And I think for Robert it was a struggle, because at a certain point it meant that he had to make a choice."

Mapplethorpe's choice was to explore his sexuality, to leave New York for San Francisco and come back with a boyfriend, to create photographs with explicit, sometimes shocking nudity.
"I knew that I could never have a relationship with him the way that he would with a male," Smith says. "But of course as time went by, I realized that what Robert and I had, no one else would have, male or female."

Mapplethorpe died in 1989 after battling AIDS. Both he and Smith knew it was coming.

"Oh, it was very painful," Smith says. But they remained partners until the end. "I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write our story," Smith says. "And it took me 20 years, but I kept my promise."