Just Kids

I was traveling in January, flipping through the channels in a Courtyard by Marriott, and came across Charlie Rose interviewing some woman. I didn’t know who it was but she was talking about rock ’n roll and something grabbed me about her. I eventually found out that the woman was artist/rocker/poet Patti Smith and she was talking mostly about her very special relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe and how it affected her life and music.

Mind you, I was not very familiar with these people. Heck, I get Patti (Patty) Smiths (Smyths) mixed up. I did a little research and it led me to this book. Just so you know, at the risk of insulting your pop-culture knowledge, this book is not about John McEnroe’s wife.

The meat of the book takes place between 1967 and 1975. In 1967 Smith moved to New York City to explore her artistic self. Through a series of chance meetings, she ended up building a relationship with Mapplethorpe and moved in with him before the end of the year. They had a romantic relationship, but weren’t completely compatible in the romance department because Mapplethorpe was gay. Their relationship was on a deeper level, they were much more than friends. They found in each other a perfect counterpart to support the others art. How lucky they were to find each other.

They struggled as starving artists but they gained some momentum in 1969 when they moved to the Chelsea Hotel. That’s when the excitement starts. The Chelsea Hotel was the center of the pop-culture universe in 1969. Here is how Smith describes a typical night in the El Quixote, a bar-restaurant attached to the Chelsea Hotel.

I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila.

This only scratched the surface. Besides the musicians, it was a hub for writers, poets, actors, painters, and sculptors. Smith and Mapplethorpe thrived in this atmosphere. They bounded along for a few years, supporting each other at every turn; Mapplethorpe exploring photography and partaking in the drug culture, Smith drawing, writing poetry, and dabbling in music, but staying out of the drug culture. In fact, in 1970 Smith was confronted with the opportunity to shoot up:

I almost fainted. I couldn’t even look at the syringe, let alone put it in my arm. “I’m not doing that,” I said.

They were shocked. “You never shot up?”

Everyone took it for granted that I did drugs because of the way I looked. I refused to shoot up.

She bought her first guitar in mid-July 1970 and got her first taste of fame after a successful poetry reading in 1971. However, she repelled this fame, despite questioning herself.

I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated.

By late 1972, neither had hit it big, but things were changing. Mapplethorpe met Sam Wagstaff, who became his lifetime partner and patron. Smith met Allen Lanier (Blue Öyster Cult), who inspired her music career and remained her companion throughout most of the 70s. With these new relationships, they left the Chelsea Hotel and sort of parted ways, but they still “lived within walking distance of each other.”

This little exchange in 1973 between Smith and Mapplethorpe should give a feel for the relationship; despite living apart and having others in their lives, they were still close:

I had seen The Harder They Come, and was stirred by the music. When I began listening to the soundtrack, following its trail to Big Youth and the Roys, U and I, it led me back to Ethiopia. I found irresistible the Rastafarian connection to Solomon and Sheba, and the Abyssinia of Rimbaud, and somewhere along the line I decided to try their sacred herb.

That was my secret pleasure until Robert caught me sitting alone, trying to stuff some pot in an empty Kool cigarette wrapper. I had no idea how to roll a joint. I was a little embarrassed, but he sat down on the floor, picked the seeds out of my small stash of Mexican pot, and rolled me a couple of skinny joints. He just grinned at me and we had a smoke, our first together.

After that, as fun as it was, I kept my pot smoking to myself, listening to Screaming Target, writing impossible prose. I never thought of pot as a social drug. I liked to use it to work, to think, and eventually for improvising with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl as the three of us would gather under a frankincense tree dreaming of Haile Selassie.

In 1975 she cut her first album, Horses, and Mapplethorpe took the picture for the cover. Smith says about the cover, “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”

By 1978, they had pretty much arrived.

In 1978 Robert was immersed in photography. His elaborate framing mirrored his relationship with geometric forms. He had produced classical portraits, uniquely sexual flowers, and had pushed pornography into the realm of art. His present task was mastering light and achieving the densest blacks.

Also in 1978, “Because the Night,” Smith’s collaboration with Bruce Springsteen rose to number 13 on the top 40 chart. Smith describes Robert’s reaction as “admiration without envy, our brother-sister language.”

“Patti,” he drawled, “you got famous before me.”

In 1979 Smith married Fred Sonic Smith and moved out of New York. The book fast forwards at this point, because, I’m assuming, they became less dependent on each other. They were no longer “just kids,” but adults with families, spouses, partners, and careers.

ROBERT WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AIDS AT THE SAME time I found I was carrying my second child. It was 1986, late September, and the trees were heavy with pears. I felt ill with flulike symptoms, but my intuitive Armenian doctor told me that I wasn’t sick but in the early stages of pregnancy. “What you have dreamed for has come true,” he told me. Later, I sat amazed in my kitchen and thought that it was an auspicious time to call Robert.

Mapplethorpe died in 1989. It hit Smith hard. She went with her family to the beach to make sense of things.

Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed. I stood looking at the sky. The clouds were the colors of a Raphael. A wounded rose. I had the sensation he had painted it himself. You will see him. You will know him. You will know his hand. These words came to me and I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert’s hand.

Not sure I get all of that, but it’s beautiful writing. I didn’t really get the sense that she was religious so the God reference took me off-guard a little. The book ends here. I really enjoyed it. The story of their relationship was interesting and so was the discussion of this highly charged time of artistic rebellion.