Reviewed by Jeff Baker
Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids is full of inspiring exchanges about art between her and Robert Mapplethorpe, but the conversation with the most kick happened in 1971, when she asked a record-store clerk named Lenny Kaye to perform with her at a poetry reading.
"You play guitar, right?" Smith asked Kaye.
"Yeah, I like to play guitar."
"Well, could you play a car crash with an electric guitar?"
Kaye said he could do that "without hesitation," Smith writes, and a door blew open. No one -- not Bob Dylan, not Lou Reed, not Jim Morrison or Leonard Cohen -- combined the wild mystery of poetry with the power of rock music quite the way Smith did after she teamed up with Kaye and formed a band. Maybe it was her raw, pure spirit, or the way she revered Rimbaud and knew how to pony like Bony Maroney or that she was a free young woman in a man's world, but Smith brought something glorious to popular culture.
"So different and so new" -- Doc Pomus wrote the line that Ben E. King sang. There's no better way to describe Smith on the cover of "Horses": jet-black hair and white shirt, jacket on her shoulder with the light just right and a direct, open look that said nobody died for her sins.
Mapplethorpe took that photo. He made only 12 exposures but knew he got the magic moment. The story behind it, the long lead-in to the moment when the shutter fell and the world changed, is beautifully told in Just Kids. It's a fable and a tragedy, about a boy from Long Island and a girl from New Jersey who fell in love and lived for art and made it big without giving in or selling out. They never quit on each other, not after nature pulled them apart and not after a plague hit the city and took Mapplethorpe in 1989.
"Patti, did art get us?" Mapplethorpe asked, dying of AIDS.
She told him she didn't know, didn't want to think about it. "Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint," she writes.
There are many surprises in Just Kids, none more interesting for young artists than learning that Smith, a musician who's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mapplethorpe, a daring and influential photographer, found their most creative method of artistic expression only after years of hard work in other media. Mapplethorpe loved to draw and paint and made beautiful necklaces that he tried to sell in galleries. Smith wrote poetry and began to draw while following his lead. They studied art books and "adopted Blake's palette as our own, shades of rose, cadmium and moss, colors that seemed to generate light."
Mapplethorpe was shy, ambitious and worried about money. Smith was the nurturer and the romantic, Lee Krasner to his Jackson Pollock; she was not as worried as he was when they were so poor they didn't have an extra dime for chocolate milk. They couldn't afford two tickets to art exhibitions, so one would go and tell the other about it. "One day we'll go in together, and the work will be ours," he told her.
Smith came to New York in 1967, after having a baby and giving it up for adoption. She wandered the city with no money and no real plan, sleeping in doorways and in Central Park. She first saw Mapplethorpe asleep in Brooklyn, "pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck." Later he helped her escape a bad date and they bonded, the "hippie shepherd boy" and the "the country mouse."
Smith's writing about her early days with Mapplethorpe is fervid and incantatory but never falls into incoherence. Her prose is full of the startling images fans of her music would expect -- her friendship with Mapplethorpe "was a refuge from everything, where he could hide or coil like an exhausted baby snake" -- but she never loses sight of the narrative line, the story she's chosen to tell.
The intimate part of that story is told directly and with restraint. Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers; then he began exploring other sides of his sexuality. Smith writes that she "knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality" and felt she somehow failed him when he told her he was gay. She cried when he went into the streets to hustle and didn't understand when he began incorporating sadomasochism into his art. She accepted his boyfriends and the shocking new turn in his work and formed a close friendship with his great friend and patron, Sam Wagstaff.
What's remarkable isn't that Smith and Mapplethorpe discovered their true selves and changed as artists but that they stayed loyal to each other through those changes. They lived together in the Chelsea Hotel and met a gallery of artists and writers who influenced them. Smith formed close friendships with William S. Burroughs and folklorist Harry Smith and had relationships with Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard and Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. Mapplethorpe shed his shyness and moved upward through the art world, acquiring a camera and pushing forward with the images that defined him.
Success came first for Smith, later and in a rush for Mapplethorpe. They did a gallery show together in 1978 and made a short film called "Still Moving." Later that summer they walked down Eighth Street in Manhattan and heard "Because the Night," her collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, "blasting from one storefront after another."
"Patti, you got famous before me," he said.
The next year Smith left New York for married life in Detroit with Fred "Sonic" Smith. The "leave-taking was difficult for both of us," she writes, but nothing like the years to come. Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987 and Smith wrote the heartbreaking song "Paths That Cross" for him. She made an album called "Dream of Life" with her husband, and Mapplethorpe took family portraits of the Smiths. In his last photo of her, her daughter Jesse is reaching out to him.
"We never had any children," Mapplethorpe once said to Smith.
"Our work was our children," she said.
Books mentioned in this post