and Robert Mapplethorpe
REALLY BELIEVE THAT ROBERT SOUGHT NOT TO DESTROY ORDER, BUT TO REORDER, TO REINVENT, AND TO CREATE A NEW ORDER. I KNOW THAT HE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO SOMETHING THAT NO ONE ELSE HAD DONE. THAT WAS VERY IMPORTANT TO HIM.—PATTI SMITH
In 1967, Patti Smith moved to New York City from South Jersey, and the rest is epic history. There are the photographs, the iconic made-for-record-cover black-and-whites shot by Smith’s lover, soul mate, and co-conspirator in survival, Robert Mapplethorpe. Then there are the photographs taken of them together, both with wild hair and cloaked in homemade amulets, hanging out in the glamorous poverty of the Chelsea Hotel. It is nearly impossible to navigate the social and artistic history of late ’60s and ’70s New York without coming across Smith. She was, as she still is, a poet, an artist, a rock star, and a bit of a shaman. But it is her friendship with Mapplethorpe where her legend begins—and like most beginnings, this one has been romanticized to the point of fantasy. How is it that two such beautifully feral-looking young people with no money or connections, who later would go on to achieve such extreme success—Smith with her music and Mapplethorpe with his photography—found each other? It is a myth of New York City as it once was, a place where misfits magically gravitated toward one another at the chance crossroads of a creative revolution. That’s one way to look at it. But Smith’s new memoir, Just Kids (Ecco)—which traces her relationship with Mapplethorpe from their first meetings (there were two of them before one fateful night in Tompkins Square Park) to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods—paints a radically different picture. In this account, the two struggle to pay for food and shelter, looking out for each other and sacrificing everything they have for the purpose of making art. Just Kids portrays their mythic status as the product ofwillful determination as much as destiny. Smith’s immensely personal storytelling also rectifies certain mistaken notions about the pair, revealing specifically that they were not wild-child drug addicts but dreamers, more human and loving than their cold, isolated stares and sharp, skinny bodies in early photos lead one to believe. Smith left New York for Detroit in 1979 to live with the man she would eventually marry, the late former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, just as Mapplethorpe’s career as one of the most shocking and potent art photographers was reaching its apogee (his black-and-whites of gay hustlers, S&M acts, flowers, and children were headed to museum collections and a court trial for obscenity charges). By then Smith had already producedHorses and had risen to international fame. Her book follows Mapplethorpe all the way to his death in 1989 from complications due to AIDS, but it’s mostly about two kids who held on to each other.
As I began reading Just Kids, Smith hadn’t yet officially agreed to an interview, but I continued to move through it, spending an entire Sunday in my apartment unable to let go of the book. I finally had to put it down to attend a cocktail party at a friend’s house, and when I got there, I saw Patti Smith across the room. I went up to her, and we made a date for the interview. It’s this kind of chance meeting that makes you think there’s some magic left in New York. We met at a café that Smith has been going to since she first moved to the city. She ordered Egyptian chamomile tea, and I ordered an Americano.
PATTI SMITH, GODMOTHER OF PUNK
PATTI SMITH, GODMOTHER OF PUNK