Patti Smith’s Just Kids is ostensibly about her long-running romantic and professional entanglements with photographer and provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe, but the book is at its most rewarding when it’s following blind alleys. Run-ins with a blissed-out Jimi Hendrix, collaborations with playwright Sam Shepard, accidental dates with Allen Ginsberg over cheese sandwiches: This meandering memoir is rife with juicy snapshots of ’70s New York cool at its grittiest and most seductive. But while Smith succeeds in communicating the thrill of social climbing at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, she doesn’t provide much evidence of Mapplethorpe’s supposed appeal. Perhaps she doesn’t care whether readers see what she saw in him, but given that her book is largely a love letter to the man she alternately called brother, soulmate, and coach, a few more clues would go a long way toward making her devotion relatable.
Even before fusing Beat poetry with proto-punk on the era-defining Horses, Smith had a brashness and magnetism that allowed her to move from strength to strength in the underground art world, effortlessly attracting admirers and creating inroads for experiments in playwriting, film scoring, and acting. Compared to her, Mapplethorpe was infuriatingly capricious, undergoing radical internal and cosmetic makeovers, threatening to “become a homosexual” (even after sustained gay relationships), and—as told in the book in one memorable scene—stealing a monogrammed William Blake print, only to flush it down the toilet once he suspected the heat was on. Together, they were two innocents living in romantic squalor in the Chelsea Hotel, sacrificing everything for their art with a single-mindedness that’s by turns alienating and inspiring.
Occasionally, the style of Just Kids tips the scales toward the former. Like an art-school freshman constantly updating her Facebook with whatever she hopes will impress, Smith employs every allusion and simile she can to prove her high-culture bona fides. She’s especially fond of invoking Jean Genet when she shoplifts (and Arthur Rimbaud absolutely whenever), but she’s smart enough to show a little self-awareness about her appropriation, admitting “I was full of references” after she throws a coat over her shoulder—Sinatra-style—during her iconic photo shoot. That all-incorporating, wide-eyed appreciation can grate, but it’s also fitting for an examination of how art informs and reforms our lives, and how today’s icons will be emulated by tomorrow’s.