Together in the Same Direction

Check out  Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.  They’ll never replace Joan Didion in my heart, but there’s something about that grow-together, learn-together that tugs my heartstrings in such a satisfying way.

Patti’s book about her relationship w/ Mapplethorpe isn’t brand new.  But her references (the title “Just Kids” referring to tourists who declined to take the Bohemian couple’s picture bc by all appearances they were  mere raggedy kids) are certainly newer than “Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein,” the most parallel pop memory the NYT invokes:

Apart from a certain shared apprehension of immortality — complacent in one case, but endearingly gingerly in the other — the skinny 28-year-old on the cover of Patti Smith’s seismic 1975 album, “Horses,” doesn’t look much at all like Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. But because the shutterbug was Robert Mapplethorpe, who was soon to become fairly legendary himself, that exquisite photograph of Smith on the brink of fame is as close as New York’s 1970s avant-garde ever came to a comparable twofer. The mythmaking bonus is that the latter-day duo were much more genuinely kindred spirits.

What a lovely thought: A relationship dependent not on the romantic, but rather on a shared love of something great!

Writes Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

Aimer, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction.

(“Love, it’s not gazing at one another, but rather to gaze together in the same direction.”)

Smith’s biography of a relationship predictably becomes a biography of an instant time and place.  From another, more recent review:

… “Just Kids” is the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s that any alumnus has committed to print. The tone is at once flinty and hilarious, which figures: she’s always been both tough and funny, two real saving graces in an artist this prone to excess. What’s sure to make her account a cornucopia for cultural historians, however, is that the atmosphere, personalities and mores of the time are so astutely observed.

Patti found the muse she needed in Mapplethorpe (“We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed,” she writes).  And through her he gained some solid handhold:

[Smith’s job clerking at Scribner’s bookstore] left Mapplethorpe free to doodle while she earned their keep, which she didn’t mind. “My temperament was sturdier,” she explains, something her descriptions of his moues confirm. Even when they were poor and unknown, he spent more time deciding which outfit to wear than some of us do on our taxes.

The book outlines in exquisite detail the hard years, the romantic years, and leaves off where the fame and alienating kind of debauchery begins.  Part of the “gazing together” is towards celebrity in their midst:

Among the most charming vignettes is her attempted pickup in an automat (“a real Tex Avery eatery”) by Allen Ginsberg, who buys the impoverished Smith a sandwich under the impression she’s an unusually striking boy.

Finally, here are the last lines of the two NYT reviews, each evocative and lovely:

They sound like Hansel and Gretel, living in a state of shared delight, blissfully unaware of what awaited on the path ahead.


Peculiarly or not, the one limitation of “Just Kids” is that Mapplethorpe himself, despite Smith’s valiant efforts, doesn’t come off as appealingly as she hopes he will. When he isn’t candidly on the make — “Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that’s what I’m about,” he tells her — his pretension and self-romanticizing can be tiresome. Then again, the same description could apply to the young Smith, and we wouldn’t have the older one if she’d been more abashed in her yearnings. This enchanting book is a reminder that not all youthful vainglory is silly; sometimes it’s preparation. Few artists ever proved it like these two.


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