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Patti Smith: Dreams of Life and Death 

Looking back with the iconic poet-musician

Thursday, Feb 18 2010
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Patti Smith steps onstage with a shy, joyous grin, as if still surprised by the applause. At the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater to perform a tribute to her friend, the late folk archivist, filmmaker and painter Harry Smith, she rests her coffee cup on a stool and reads passages from Just Kids, her newly released memoir of her years as friend, lover and confidante to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989 of complications from AIDS. The three of them had once lived in New York's Chelsea Hotel — "a doll's house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe" — and when Harry first met young Patti and Robert, he'd asked them, "Who are you? Are you twins?"

Harry was of a tradition to which Patti and Robert aspired, scraping by in the days before the mass distribution of credit cards, making art with few resources and no rewards. "If we didn't have money, we just didn't eat. That's when men were men," Smith says, playfully making a fist. Bohemia wasn't a romantic notion but stark reality, even for the likes of Harry Smith, a beloved resource of Americana, whose 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music album was a crucial influence on Dylan's generation. He died at the Chelsea in 1991. "I don't know if Harry died in obscurity," Smith says, "but he certainly lived it."

She skips through the book, reading of a lobster dinner at Max's Kansas City with Sam Shepard, already a recognized playwright, though then known to Patti only as a hillbilly drummer named Slim Shadow. (After Smith discovered the truth, Shepard drawled, "Eat your ice cream, Patti Lee.")

click to flip through (3) ILLUSTRATION BY ANDRÉ CARRILHO
  • ILLUSTRATION BY ANDRÉ CARRILHO
   
 

Smith recounts her first meeting with poet Allen Ginsberg, who immediately expressed great interest, taking her out for a sandwich but then suddenly asking in alarm: "Are you a girl?"

The theater is packed, with an overflow crowd watching from the courtyard on video screens. Smith picks up an acoustic guitar and begins strumming the simple, disarming chords of "Grateful," shifting from one foot to the other as she sings in a voice of gentle force. "Harry and Robert were the first people who had me sing to them," she says with a smile, patches of gray in her long, auburn hair. "Harry would say something that would embarrass me then, but now I like it: 'You are quite the chanteuse.' "

Smith dedicates a song to the late J.D. Salinger, another to Howard Zinn, more losses to mark and signify. And she performs one last song for Harry Smith, "My Blakean Year," (from her 2004 LP, Trampin'). It erupts from her as a howl, raging and wise: "So throw off your stupid cloak, embrace all that you fear/For joy shall conquer all despair, in my Blakean year."

Smith and Mapplethorpe were barely 20 when they met, a couple of androgynous hippies newly arrived in New York City to live among the bohos and Beats, the Factory divas and "extravagant bums" swirling around the boroughs, the Bowery and the Chelsea. He introduced himself as Bob, but she preferred to call him Robert. They spent their first night together paging hungrily through books of art. Smith was a South Jersey girl turned on by Rimbaud and rock & roll, driven to write and sketch each day, laying a foundation for her future as a poet and rocker. Mapplethorpe had been a Long Island altar boy and was naturally gifted with a pen and brush, a classicist who would become the most notorious photographer of his generation. They inherited a lineage of art and confrontation, with Smith discovering her voice and confidence under the influence of Beat poets Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. For Mapplethorpe, the model initially was Warhol, and he was determined to be noticed.

"I always expected to be a starving, suffering artist who would die young and hopefully leave good things behind. But Robert didn't share that romantic notion," says Smith, now 63. "He really wanted us to do well in our lifetime. The irony of Robert only living until he was 42 is that I was the sickly one. I had gone through tuberculosis, I had gone through various childhood diseases. I was considered the fragile one of the two of us. I wound up the survivor."

Just Kids isn't written in the electrified lingo of Smith's early, prefame poetry or her essays for the likes of Creem and Rolling Stone. It's a gentler tale, direct and unguarded, thoughtful and deeply emotional, with subtler turns of language. It arrives years behind schedule, delayed simply because she took the project so seriously as a work of art, not a memoir of celebrity nostalgia. Just Kids reveals the process of becoming an artist, and bearing witness to the flowering and internal conflicts of her beloved Robert.

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