"Come on now, try and understand/The way I feel when I'm in your hands," sings Patti Smith in her 1978 song "Because the Night." It's tempting to wonder whether the Godmother of Punk was thinking of Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith's ex-lover and first muse, when she sang those words. Smith and Mapplethorpe met in New York in 1967, when both were young aspiring artists — Smith had grown up in working-class New Jersey, the daughter of a Jehovah's Witness jazz singer; Mapplethorpe was raised in a devout Catholic family in Floral Park, Queens. Later, of course, Smith would become a critically acclaimed poet and singer, and Mapplethorpe would come out as gay, and gain fame as a brilliant and controversial photographer. But it's the story of their romance — two young people desperately in love — that Smith recounts in her remarkable, evocative new memoir, Just Kids.
For those familiar with Smith's edgy brand of rock 'n' roll or Mapplethorpe's explicit, homoerotic photography, the sweet and naive couple in Just Kids might come as a shock. The two moved in together shortly after meeting, bonding over art, making small and sweet gifts for each other, promising never to be apart. Later, they would rent a room at the Chelsea Hotel, meeting some of their artistic heroes — the musicologist Harry Smith, Jefferson Airplane banshee Grace Slick, members of Andy Warhol's Factory. Smith writes about Mapplethorpe with such authentic sweetness and wistful tenderness it's impossible not to be drawn in by the young couple's adoration of each other. Even when they're faced with adversity — poverty, rejection, Mapplethorpe's decision to make extra money as a street hustler — the reader can't help but be taken in by the ardor of their love.
So much so, in fact, that it's easy to forget who Smith and Mapplethorpe would later become. In one telling scene, the two are walking in Washington Square when they're spotted by an older couple. The woman urges her husband to take their picture: "I think they're artists. They might be somebody someday." The husband refuses: "Oh, go on ... they're just kids."
Smith is an excellent writer, and her memoir is sweet, sad and deeply felt, but never mawkish or sentimental. Her relationship with Mapplethorpe was complicated, of course, and she does a wonderful job relating her love for him and her heartbreak at the slow dissolution of their romance: "Paradoxically, he seemed to want to draw me closer. Perhaps it was the closeness before the end, like a gentleman buying his mistress jewels before telling her it's over." She didn't want to let him go; she wanted, more than anything, to be there for him, to protect him.
In the end, she couldn't. Mapplethorpe died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989; Smith's recounting of his death is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking passages I've read in years. Just Kids is more than just a gift to her ex-lover; it's a gift to everyone who has ever been touched by their art, and to everyone who's ever been in love. Like the best of Smith's music and Mapplethorpe's art, this book is haunting and unforgettable.