Patti Smith: Just Kids with Robert Mapplethorpe
Rock singer Patti Smith has an engrossing story to tell
Patti Smith has lived a fascinating and creative life. She’s performed as a singer/songwriter since the 1970s, punctuating each decade with performances and the creation of cutting edge albums, eventually returning to writing books of poetry and engaging in activism for environmental and political issues, once calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush.
In 1967, during the so-called Summer of Love, Smith met controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she soon embarked on an intense friendship that lasted until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989.
Patti Smith wrote a memoir of her relationship with Mapplethorpe entitled Just Kids, published in 2010. The book tells the story of the lifelong relationship of two soul mates coming of age during the bohemian efflorescence in New York City during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Let’s look into this touching and poetic account of Patti Smith’s union with one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists.
While living in NYC, Smith’s creative career began in 1967, when Smith began writing poetry, painting, acting in plays and doing performance art. She met Robert Mapplethorpe while working as a sales clerk in a bookstore, eventually becoming a singer/songwriter in the punk rock scene evolving in the middle 1970s in America, the UK and Australia. One day Smith would become known as the Godmother of Punk.
In 1975, Smith formed the Patti Smith Group and produced her first album, Horses, a fusion of punk rock and poetry recitations. In spite of being raised as a Catholic, her famous line in those days was: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Elaborating on this statement in Just Kids, Smith wrote: “I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my own actions. Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself.”
The cover of Horses features a stark, androgynous portrait of Smith photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Patti Smith has produced numerous studio albums and performed widely, though she often disappears from the limelight for years at a time. Over the years and decades, Smith has received seemingly unending accolades and awards, and her achievements are impressive, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Moreover, Smith was the subject of a documentary in 2008 entitled, Patti Smith: Dream of Life.
Born in 1946, the same year as Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe grew up in NYC and attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he hoped to attain a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, though he dropped out in 1969 before attaining it.
In the late 1960s, Mapplethorpe began taking photographs with a Polaroid camera, eventually amassing a collection of over 1500. Many of these photos featured Patti Smith, particularly when she and Mapplethorpe lived together from 1967 to 1974.
But other photos depicted homoerotic and/or sadomasochistic themes many people found objectionable, if not obscene or offensive. Indeed, many art galleries and libraries in the US and UK refused to show Mapplethorpe’s work, fueling a cause célèbre regarding the artist’s right to show sexually explicit photos and the public’s right not to be exposed to them. Highlighting this legal fray, in 1990 the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and Dennis Barrie were charged with obscenity for showing Mapplethorpe’s work. A jury trial later acquitted the defendants.
Interestingly, in 2006 Mapplethorpe's photo of Andy Warhol sold for over $600,000, making it one of the most expensive photos ever sold.
Robert Mapplethorpe died of complications from AIDS in 1989, age 42.
Just Kids, a Memoir
Most of Patti’s Smith book covers the time period from 1967 to 1974, when she and Mapplethorpe lived together most of the time in a relationship that was variously friendly and/or romantic and sometimes sexual, though there’s little sex in the book, so exactly what Patti and Robert did together can only be implied. At the very least, they appeared to have a great, soulful friendship, often a difficult accomplishment for a man and woman in any particular union.
Perhaps the beginning of Smith’s career as a rock singer in the middle 1970s precipitated the breakup of their deeply emotional relationship. Mapplethorpe’s increasing homosexual orientation probably played a part as well. In the book, Patti never admitted trying to deter Robert from his romantic and/or sexual inclination, even when he went “hustling” to make extra money. If she ever wanted Robert to be straight and stay that way, she didn’t mention it in the book.
Lonely Janis Joplin
The backdrop of the book involves the decidedly hip bohemian scene evolving in NYC in the late 1960s. Patti and Robert associated with the numerous rockers traveling through the area, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Grace Slick, Johnny Winter and Bob Dylan. In fact, Patti had a close, though brief, personal interaction with Janis Joplin. Noticing how guys tended to drop her for prettier women, Patti wrote a song for Joplin:
I was working real hard
To show the world what I could do
Oh I guess I never dreamed
I’d have to
World spins some photographs
How I love to laugh when the crowd laughs
While love slips through
A theatre that is full
But oh baby
When the crowd goes home
And I turn in and I realize I’m alone
I can’t believe
I had to sacrifice you
After hearing these words recited to her, Joplin said, “That’s me, man. That’s my song.”
Andy Warhol’s Factory
Smith and Mapplethorpe also hung out with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, though the contact was mostly superficial. A budding photographer by this time, Mapplethorpe wanted to pick Warhol’s brain, as Andy had a tremendous interest in photography and moviemaking, but this joining of minds never happened. Since Warhol had been shot and nearly died in 1968, he didn’t go out as much and remained notoriously unspoken and elusive.
At other venues, Smith and Mapplethorpe interacted with beat poets Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, who, when he first met Patti, thought she was a very pretty boy and tried to pick her up. Patti also had an affair of some kind (she didn’t elaborate) with playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she co-wrote the play, Cowboy Mouth.
The Chelsea Hotel
Another very interesting place in NYC in those days was the Chelsea Hotel, a quaint, aging, elegant place frequented by artists of all sorts. Smith and Mapplethorpe lived in the hotel when they were mostly poor and often didn’t know when they’d have enough to eat. Smith made money by working in bookstores and scouring flea markets and secondhand stores for rare books, which she’d buy and then sell for a nice profit.
Smith and Mapplethorpe met many interesting people while living in the hotel, including fashion designer and actor Bruce Rudow, artist Sandy Daley, musician Mathew Reich and composer George Kleinsinger. About living at the Chelsea Hotel, Smith wrote, “Life at the Chelsea was an open market, everyone with something of himself to sell.” And about the building itself, she penned, “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe.”
It broke Patti’s heart when she finally had to move out.
Eventually Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe went their separate ways. Patti got married and had children and Robert pursued his homosexual lifestyle and exploding career in the art world. But it seems definite that Patti Smith would always love her dashing, artistic man, with whom she shared numerous insights, many special moments and undying respect and love. Just Kids is a memoir for everyone to enjoy.
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© 2012 Kelley Marks