Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Way They Were: Patti Smith's Just Kids

In a burst of youthful enthusiasm during the late 1970s, Rickie Lee Jones once famously  proclaimed the sensibility she shared with boyfriend and fellow musician Tom Waits: ”We’re living on the jazz side of life.” A decade earlier, another couple in their 20s had a similarly bohemian, improvisational relationship that was devoted as much to art as to romance. If not more so. Singer Patti Smith has now chronicled the years she spent with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids (HarperCollins, 2010), a riveting memoir that recently won America’s National Book Award.

Based in Los Angeles, Jones and Waits may have been the West Coast counterparts of Smith and Mapplethorpe, who called New York home. Smith describes the dynamic metropolis and extraordinary times in stunning detail: “Nothing was more wonderful to me than Coney Island. with its gritty innocence. It was our kind of place: the fading arcades, the peeling signs of bygone days, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls on a stick...” The focus for all four of them was on the demimondes of their respective cities, along with almost everywhere they visited in between. It’s an aesthetic that’s edgy and suffused with pain.

A Smith melody addresses the philosophy of scraping by that she and Mapplethorpe adhered to: “Every night before I rest my head, / see those dollar bills go swirling 'round my bed./ I know they're stolen, but I don't feel bad./ I take that money, buy you things you never had.” Jones composed these lyrics: “Zero quit school/ and she lost her job again/ and then her boyfriend beat her up/ and now he won't let her in.” A snippet from a tango-flavored Waits song: “I like my town with a little drop of poison.” 

The little drop of poison in Mapplethorpe turned out to be blood -- specifically, the HIV-infected blood that killed him in 1989, before a pharmaceutical cocktail was invented to hold in check the disease then ravaging those who had unprotected sex with other men. The gay community, especially the rough-trade aspect of it, was the source of his most startling black-and-white images. But back in the sixties, he and Smith fancied themselves adventurers with “a commitment to live for art alone.” The book’s title is derived from the afternoon in Greenwich Village when a middle-class woman wanted her husband to take their picture as a souvenir snapshot of genuine hippie artists. He corrected his wife with this observation: “They’re just kids.”

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith
Smith grew up a misfit and aspiring literary genius in an affectionate Christian family that migrated from Chicago to Pennsylvania to southern New Jersey. Always an avid reader, she tried college and various blue collar jobs without success, finally hightailing it to the Big Apple in the summer of 1967 at age 20. On her first day there, while looking for some friends in Brooklyn, she went to a brownstone apartment where Mapplethorpe was crashing. “On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled ... I had never seen anyone like him.”

Mapplethorpe then led her to another building nearby, where the aforementioned friends were living. Nobody was home. Smith wound up spending the night in Manhattan near the Central Park Children’s Zoo, “not far from the statue of the Mad Hatter.” She took regular refuge there, with almost no money to her name and very little to eat. After a few weeks, the boy with dark curls happened to walk into the uptown bookstore where Smith had finally found employment and, later the same day, coincidentally appeared just as an older man (he’d bought the hungry girl dinner) was propositioning her in Washington Square Park. Mapplethorpe pretended to be her boyfriend, paving the way for an escape from the potentially compromising situation. From then on, the destined-for-each-other outcasts were inseparable in a series of squalid apartments and, eventually, the fabled Chelsea Hotel. They remained poor for years, thanks to low-paying menial work that rarely dimmed their belief a better future awaited them.

Mapplethorpe, whose direction in visual media was still somewhat amorphous as a teenager in Queens, felt even more alienated by the mainstream than Smith did. He was ridiculed for fashioning homemade jewelry rather than playing sports. In a devout Catholic household, his mother hoped he might join the priesthood and his detached father pressured him to become a commercial artist – something their son’s sensitive temperament could never have handled. The liberating bond he formed with Smith offered a powerful antidote to his early repression. “He was searching, consciously or unconsciously, for himself,” she writes. “He was in a fresh state of transformation ... His beads, dungarees and sheepskin vest represented not a costume but an expression of freedom.” 

Smith in photo by Mapplethorpe
In other words, Mapplethorpe and Smith – he took drugs, which she generally avoided – celebrated the zeitgeist that they soon would help expand into ever more experimental realms. Decadence was not an obstacle. She worshipped the bleak verses of Arthur Rimbaud, who ”held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it.” Smith idolized John Lennon and Bob Dylan; her partner was similarly awed by Andy Warhol. They both adored William Blake, Jean Genet, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Tim Hardin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and all the Beats. 

The “just kids” were somewhat preoccupied with gloom. Haunted by their religious upbringings, Mapplethorpe was attracted to satanic symbolism – “Sympathy for the Devil” being his favorite tune – while Smith imagined angels. In print, she recounts their reminiscences about childhood: “We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad."

Mapplethorpe sketched, painted and devised collages, constructions and installations. But his relationship with photography initially was hesitant. She recalls that he “didn’t have the patience for developing and printing,” instead preferring the instant gratification of a tricked-out Polaroid camera. They coexisted as equals, but his conceptual passions often dominated. When he covered their bedroom in shiny Mylar, she disapproved and wondered what Mapplethorpe was thinking: “‘I don’t think,’ he insisted. ‘I feel.’”

Smith performing in 2006
Smith eventually began publishing books of poetry, followed by a singer-songwriter career as the high priestess of punk. His restlessness had evolved into a slow embrace of homosexual yearning that later became a moth-to-flame desire for extremes. His photos of muscular men in black leather, sometimes engaged in acts that looked more brutal than homo-erotic, were shocking. The sadomasochistic portfolio caused plenty of controversy, yet Mapplethorpe achieved the fame and fortune he had desperately sought. By 1974, the twosome were no longer physically intimate, though they never stopped being mutually supportive soul mates. “We went our separate ways,” Smith notes, “but within walking distance of one another.” He shot the iconic cover for her first album, 1975‘s Horses

I don’t know how Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits ended their togetherness on the “jazz side” of things, but Smith and Mapplethorpe faced a tragic final parting worthy of all the doomed souls they admired. She married MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, moved to Michigan in 1979 and had two children. “It took me far from the world I had known, yet Robert was ever in my consciousness; the blue star in the constellation of my personal cosmology.” As much a heartbreaking love story as an homage to the enduring nature of creativity, the poet’s book shines with exquisite prose. She includes a brief letter written to Mapplethorpe as he lay dying: “You drew me from the darkest period of my life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it means to be an artist.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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