It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of "Crystal Ships." Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played "Ode to Billie Joe." There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life. It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.
It's the end of chapter one, and I'm hooked. Smith goes on to give a thorough and loving account of her time with Mapplethorpe, weaving intimate details into an absorbing history of the 1960s/1970s New York art scene. Smith's memories of the likes of Jim Carroll, Harry Smith, and Sam Shepard—at legendary locales such as the Chelsea Hotel and Max's Kansas City—are similarly touching and nod to the zeitgeist of those heady times. To her credit, Smith doesn't succumb to myth-making and instead focuses on the complexities of her friendship with Mapplethorpe, their devotion to one another, and the daily grind of the "starving artist" reality. Just Kids is a welcome reminder that before they were icons, Smith and Mapplethorpe struggled to find and make their way in the world. As its title implies, the book is essentially about a maturation process, both artistic and personal. And these kids were better than all right—they were driven to influence not just American culture, but also each other.