Patti Smith's New York stories
Punk poet Patti Smith first met Robert Mapplethorpe when she moved to New York in the late 60s, and the pair became inseparable. Now she has written a memoir of their time together, from hanging out with Ginsberg and Warhol to her rise as a hit singer and his career as a photographer. She talks to Gaby Wood, and we publish an extract from her book, Just Kids
Sunday 31 January 2010 00.08 GMT
At the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, a place that has long provided a home for her association with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith – poet, punk rocker, painter and urban hero of long standing – has erected a museum of memory. A poster from 1978 advertises a joint show here of their work: Mapplethorpe's photographs of Smith, and Smith's drawings of Mapplethorpe. She gazes out, a dark-haired wizard caught mid-motion, blurred, against a wall of gauzy white fabric. He is a lightly sketched satyr with forking beard, a Greek demigod by way of Henri Michaux. "Bob Miller Gallery presentsPatti Smith," Smith's scrawl reads around the edges of her own drawing, "requesting the presence of Robert Mapplethorpe."
Mapplethorpe died of complications related to Aids in 1989, and Smith has, in a sense, been requesting his presence ever since. Elsewhere in the gallery, her old Corona typewriter spews a sheet of paper headed "Reflecting Robert"; a letter she wrote to him in March 2008 lies under glass, near a marble crucifix and his monogrammed velvet slippers, size 8½ M. She has reprinted as platinum prints beautiful photographs she took of his hands when they were both 21 (Smith is now 63); when he was satisfied with his work, she explained when she first exhibited these, Mapplethorpe would stand back from it and put his hands in his pockets with his thumbs sticking out. These are portraits of a moment in an artist's mind, details of a person known with great love and specificity.
"I'm not a Catholic, but I have a relic sensibility," Smith says of this display when I speak to her on the phone. (The retrieved objects are just a few elements of what she refers to as "my monastic mess".) Though she lives in New York, she is in San Francisco just now, for a reading from her latest book, Just Kids, a memoir about her first years in New York with Mapplethorpe.
They met in 1967; she arrived in New York from New Jersey, a 20-year-old who had just given up a child for adoption, and found him sleeping in an apartment where she thought friends of hers lived. (Her friends had left.) The pair were fated to meet again, repeatedly, and eventually they became inseparable. Smith writes about Mapplethorpe almost as if she were inside his head, evoking the plays of light that captivated his eyes, the work he did as he went along. "I did feel I could enter him and he me," she agrees, "and I still feel that." They recognised something in each other; they had, as she writes, "never been strangers".
In the late 60s and early 70s, Smith and Mapplethorpe worked feverishly into the night side by side, held toss-ups between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies. She nursed him through purgatory, when he had trench mouth and gonorrhoea and they were living in a cheap hotel where the corridors were filled with junkies. They were lovers at first, and when Mapplethorpe finally "answered nature's call", as Smith describes his homosexuality, they still "had something very precious to save".
They hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol and Sam Shepard. This was in the days when Mapplethorpe didn't have the patience to take pictures, before he became "smitten" with photography; when Smith had no idea she would one day front a rock'n'roll band. They were, as she neatly puts it, "in a fresh state of transformation", about to become the artists they would go on to be. "Patti, you got famous before me," he said a decade later, when they walked down the street and heard her hit record "Because the Night" blaring from storefronts.
"He was teasing me," Smith tells me now, "because I always told him I didn't care if I was famous, I just wanted him to be famous. But Robert wanted people to see me as he saw me – it didn't matter so much to me whether the world saw me or not, but it was very important for Robert that the world acknowledge me. He believed in me."
It has taken Smith 10 years to write the book. Initially, after Mapplethorpe died, she wrote instead of weeping, and came up with a series of linked prose poems in his honour, entitled The Coral Sea. But his death was succeeded by the death of Smith's pianist, Richard Sohl, at the age of 37, the death of her husband, the guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, and the death of her brother, Todd, all in the space of a few years, and though she'd promised Mapplethorpe on his death bed that she would one day write their story, she couldn't return to the first loss in the midst of the others. "Robert was the first great death in a series of great deaths," she says, "and it almost taught me how to grieve. Although you grieve differently for each person, the important part of grieving is to live."
There was a long while, after she got married, moved to Detroit and had two children, when Smith was out of the public eye. After her husband died in 1994, she moved back to New York. She wasn't fantastically well off financially, but her fans and friends pulled together: her lawyer got her kids a place in a hot-shot progressive private school; Michael Stipe found them a house; Ann Demeulemeester gave her clothes, Bob Dylan asked her to perform with him. She began to rebuild her life; she made a comeback.
Smith is working more strongly now than ever. She's working on another non-fiction book – "It's funny," she says, "I never thought of doing another book like the book I did for Robert, but I seem to have found a voice in this book that wants to keep talking" – and on a detective story. She continues to take photographs, and she is two thirds of the way through work on a new album. She's composing with her daughter, Jesse Paris, and collaborating with her son Jackson, a guitarist who is married to Meg White of the White Stripes. She has expanded her band to include, for instance, a group of gypsies she met in the hills in Italy, and continues to play with her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye. The album will be, as she puts it, "a feast of family and friends", and Smith is "ecstatic" to be doing so much work at the age of 63.
New York City, of course, is expensive now and not the same; Smith can't help mourning the death of bohemia. But she wants to make one thing clear: she always has faith in the new guard. "I think that each generation has to do things their way," she explains. "I don't think my lot was any better or any cooler than the present time. My daughter now is 22, about the same age I was when I went to the Chelsea hotel with Robert, and I wish for her all the magic and all the possibilities I had. They're the future," she adds of Jesse's generation. "I'm certainly not the future. I was the future when I was younger. Now I'm happy to be the present."