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Patti Smith: Dreams of Life and Death

ILLUSTRATION BY ANDRÉ CARRILHO

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.")

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.

 

"I was a bad girl trying to be good and ... he was a good boy trying to be bad," Smith writes of their relationship. But already, she recalls, "He was an artist and he knew it."

As young, starving artists in Brooklyn, they often chose between buying food and art supplies, sometimes buying the food and shoplifting the ink and brushes (inspired by tales of Lee Krasner doing the same for Jackson Pollock). She worked in bookstores, he sometimes hustled on 42nd Street. They lived and created together, and by 1969 had moved into a tiny room at the Chelsea. He was so nervous about meeting Smith's parents the first time in South Jersey, he dropped acid. They "noticed nothing unusual except his continuous smile," she remembered later. He told his strict Catholic parents they had eloped to Aruba and got married.

The couple disagreed about Warhol: Mapplethorpe idolized him; Smith did not. "His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid," she writes. But they understood and encouraged one another. It was Smith who first suggested that Mapplethorpe pick up a camera. He was given a Polaroid instant camera, and he responded to the immediacy of the process, progressing to the square formality of a Hasselblad. It was an unexpected turn.

"I actually thought it was a phase," Smith says now. "I thought he would pass through that phase and get back to installations and collages and drawings, but he became completely devoted to it. He was smitten with the elasticity of photography, how in a photograph he could say so much."

He photographed Smith constantly, and many of the pictures from that era remain some of his most lasting, striking images: Patti as a boho Mary Magdalene, or cool and coiled by a radiator in a rare nude. Mapplethorpe's cover photograph for her 1975 debut album, Horses, was a landmark for both of them, drawing as much attention as the revolutionary rock music inside. The photo session unfolded in the apartment of Sam Wagstaff, by then Mapplethorpe's patron and lover, but the cosmic connection that day remained between photographer and subject, an intimacy reflected in the startling part-poet, part-Sinatra figure in the frame. He was done shooting after a dozen pictures.

"Then in the mid-'70s he was given entrance to the sadomasochist community, which I knew nothing about," Smith says. "They trusted him in this community, and he had it in mind to do something that no one had ever done. Which was to raise certain areas of human consent into art. That was his mission, to take the very difficult pictures with the same classic view as he would taking flowers or a portrait."

Just Kids is also Smith's antidote to the thousands of pages written on the photographer since his death, in many cases depicting him in ways Smith says she does not recognize. She publicly condemned the portrait painted by 1995's authorized Mapplethorpe: A Biography, written by Patricia Morrisroe, named his official biographer in the weeks before his death. That book cast Mapplethorpe as a dark and perverse figure, more a cruel hustler and self-promoter than any kind of artistic visionary. "... if he had demonstrated any talent as a painter," Morrisroe wrote in one typical aside, "he probably never would have picked up a camera."

Smith remembers things differently.

"Robert and I were not avant-garde–type people," she says. "Both of us studied art in a classical, even self-taught way. We looked at art books for hours on end: William Blake, Michelangelo, surrealism ... I've always studied classical literature, classical music. We were modern kids, thrown into a modern era, but I was quite a romantic and Robert had a real sense of the importance of history. To be a great artist, I believe, is to understand the importance of history and to assimilate it but then do something new."

One night, Smith went to see the Doors perform at Fillmore East, where Mapplethorpe worked briefly as an usher. She found herself observing the singer analytically, recognizing something in the Lizard King prowling the stage. "I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that," she writes. "I felt both kinship and contempt for him."

The opening and closing chapters of Just Kids recall the impact and heartbreak of Mapplethorpe's death, in New York, years after Smith moved to Detroit for marriage and family with Fred "Sonic" Smith, onetime protopunk guitarist for MC5. Near the end, Mapplethorpe regretted that he and Smith never had children. She promised to one day tell their story, clinging to her memories and a lock of his hair, still fueled by the self-confidence he helped her discover.

In the 1970s, Smith became the "punk priestess" who helped to reinvent rock as a setting for bold, literary revolt. And death was a recurring theme. Horses acknowledged and celebrated the passing of Morrison, Hendrix and the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. In the album's opening moments, she famously declares, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," words she wrote at age 20. She embraces life and death in equal measure. On the epic title song, she roars with intensity and release: "Life is full of pain, I'm cruisin' through my brain/And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud/And go Johnny go, and do the watusi!"

 

Even the album she called Dream of Life, recorded at a time of contentment in Smith's life, includes "Where Duty Calls," a chilling meditation on the killing of 220 U.S. Marines in Lebanon by a suicide bomber in 1983.

Smith reemerged in 1996 with the jaggedly mournful Gone Again, in the aftermath of her husband's fatal heart attack and the deaths of her brother, Todd, her keyboardist, Richard Sohl, and Mapplethorpe. There was also sadness at the suicide of Kurt Cobain, whom she'd never met but recognized as a kindred, troubled soul. The music and delivery on Gone Again were weighted with experience and implication that even her best '70s work didn't carry. She now calls the album "the most painful record I ever did.

"The pain of singing those songs," she says, "I wouldn't want to have to go through that again."

Yet the tributes to fallen friends and heroes have only continued, as Ginsberg, Burroughs and other comrades fell in the '90s. Mapplethorpe was rarely far from her mind. In 1996, Smith published The Coral Sea, a collection of poetry inspired by his life and passing, mingled with his photographs. A decade later, that work was translated into a live improvisational reading set to brooding, shimmering waves of sound from Kevin Shields, leader and guitarist of My Bloody Valentine. The effect was something like her first recital with Lenny Kaye at St. Mark's Church in 1971. On the new recording, Smith performs this memento mori to the scraping reverberations of guitar strings and organ: "He was destined to be ill, quite ill ... art, art, not nature moved him ... His delicate eyes saw with clarity what others did not."

At KCET studios in Hollywood, Smith sits at the very edge of a plaid couch in a room left over from the silent era, her round, wire-rim glasses sitting next to a bowl of fruit. Her jeans are tucked into purple socks and boots as she awaits her moment with Tavis Smiley.

"I write every day," Smith says. "I wrote this morning. I've written four or five books that aren't published. But I also had a lot of little diaries at the Chelsea Hotel, which would chart everything we did every day. Simple things, like, 'Cut Robert's hair like a rockabilly star,' 'Met Janis Joplin,' 'Went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw the de Kooning.' These notations were like stepping stones."

Wyclef Jean is talking with Smiley on a TV mounted on the wall. Smith reluctantly submits to a brief session with the makeup artist and soon enters the studio, where Smiley awaits, muscles bulging beneath his suit and tie. "You chose me," she tells him with a smile, noting the few interviews she has granted, "but I chose you." The makeup lady takes another look, and Smith jokes, "Maybe I'll find a husband." And as the countdown to taping begins, she smiles at the host. "Nice shoes."

Behind Smith and Smiley is a huge blowup of the downtown L.A. skyline, and a large boom camera sways across the floor in front of them as she tells of her awakening as an artist, how she coped when Mapplethorpe told her he was gay, and the love she still feels for him: "We sat and we cried with each other many, many, many times. ... But the fact is, we had much to save, much more than a physical relationship."

When the TV interview ends 30 minutes later, Smith gives the host a hug. "She speaks in prose," Smiley tells his producers, nodding his head with an amazed laugh.

Smith has been a poet and an essayist for decades, publishing small chapbooks early on. Her magazine work celebrated the Stones and Dylan, or the bop jazz men and the great singers she heard while growing up. In that, she was an early-'70s contemporary of literary rock crits Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs. (She was familiar enough in that circle that when Tosches was assigned an interview for Creem years later, she suggested that he already knew her well enough to just make it up. And he did.)

"Criticism is kind of a funny word, because I never wrote anything bad," she says now. "I only wrote about things that I liked. I thought that a critic was there to open people's eyes, not criticize. I only wrote about things I wanted to share with people. It could be Clifton Chenier or Lotte Lenya or Albert Ayler. I truthfully wrote on the side to make money to eat. You'd make $10. I had a really nice piece in Rolling Stone, I got $20 for that. Twenty dollars back in 1971 was real money." Rent at the Chelsea was $65 a week.

 

Barely a year after his death, Mapplethorpe became a rallying point for opposite ends of the culture war, a dividing line between free expression and the conservative campaign to abolish federal funding for the arts. His most controversial pictures were already years old by then but were quickly caught up in the same moment of moral outrage that surrounded Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and the family pictures of Sally Mann, and led to the FBI raid on Jock Sturges in 1990.

Throughout his short career, Mapplethorpe explored a small but diverse variety of subjects, with graceful, sensuous images of flowers, sculpture and nudes, with evocative portraits of himself and others. In 1990, all that was eclipsed by his most difficult work, the pictures of rough sex, and of abused and bloodied genitalia. Not all of it was unprecedented. His Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, from 1979, had a leather-clad male couple in a relaxed living room setting, one of them in chains, not unlike a classic Diane Arbus portrait of the unseen. There were also pictures of very young children au naturel, which critics interpreted as grimly as possible. A scheduled exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., was abruptly canceled, which didn't stop U.S. Senator Jesse Helms from tearing up the show catalog on the Senate floor. The same exhibit was shut down by police in Cincinnati.

"I think the controversy would have deeply disturbed Robert on one end, especially the idea that he was taking forbidden pictures of children," Smith says. "I remember when he took those pictures. He said, 'Look at this picture. Isn't it so cute?' And I said, 'Oh, Robert, that's so sweet.' We just looked at them as really cute pictures of kids. And having looked at so many pictures of the Victorian photographers and their pictures of children, to me they expressed Robert's love of children. That kind of sensibility never occurred to either one of us. It's the only thing that I'm happy he was spared."

Her own relationship with photography continued. Smith became a compelling subject and muse to Annie Leibovitz and others. Magazine photographer Steven Sebring spent 11 years shooting documentary footage of Smith for his film Dream of Life, released to acclaim in 2008. Smith has also devoted creative energy to her series of ghostly Polaroids, which she began soon after her husband's death.

"I couldn't do anything else. I really couldn't write. I used whatever energy I had to take care of my kids," she says. "So these photographs are really to give me a sense of self-worth. Then, like Robert, I got hooked on it. And I started taking Polaroids seriously at the end of the '90s, and devoted time to them, and then developing them as silver prints and then platinum. It's become an important part of what I do."

She asked the monumentally influential photographer and Beat comrade Robert Frank to create the music video for her "Summer Cannibals." At the shoot, Smith dared to show him the Polaroids she had been making. "I see what you're doing," he told her. She liked that.

Smith is now well into the recording of a new album with her band, with guest appearances by Tom Verlaine, Flea and her two grown children, pianist Jesse Smith and guitarist Jackson Smith. But the wide attention Just Kids has already received has been encouraging. Other books are likely, exploring other facets and periods of her life and work.

"I was hoping for Robert's sake that people would like it," Smith says. "I thought I could probably count on a certain hard-core audience, but it seems like it has spread. Robert would like that. He always wanted me to be successful. If the book does really well, it will be in Robert's name. So it's perfect that it's probably the biggest response I've had for something in some years. It figures Robert would be behind it."


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