Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Published by Bloomsbury
I was drawn to this book immediately, the cover so sixties-early seventies; Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe “two young people on a path of art, devotion and initiation.” To tell the truth, I barely knew anything of Patti Smith but I had been to the controversial Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition in Wellington some years ago, and I was instantly drawn to this story.
It is a story of two artists who befriended one another in New York City in the late sixties. Patti Smith has given birth to a baby at the age of nineteen , left to suffer alone the labour of a breech birth the nurses calling her ‘Dracula’s daughter’ because of her Beatnik appearance, and finally rescued by an angry doctor who recognised her plight. She describes the conception of this baby thus...”Our union was so fleeting; so tender that I was not altogether certain we consummated our affection.” It is this innocence and honesty that is so striking throughout the story, the life of Patti and Robert.
Patti has found solace in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud a way of escaping her life working in a factory and after placing her baby in the care of a ‘loving and educated family’, she travels alone to New York, sleeps rough on the streets, is befriended by strangers and “I sought door wells, subway cars, even a graveyard.” And then ‘the summer Coltrane died’... she meets Robert Mapplethorpe.
Their story is compelling, their total commitment to becoming artists and the intimacy and ambition that they shared. Robert has dreams of becoming a famous artist and Patti is an artist and wannabe poet who eventually becomes a well-known musician; but it is their journey, jointly and in the end separately, that is so fascinating. Famous names litter the pages, but not in the way that you might imagine. Patti inhabits effortlessly and with such gracious prose, the innocence of the time, the fact that so many of these famous people – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol – were part of her life in New York and she was, at the time not over-awed, unselfconscious, just another artist on a personal journey.
Early on, she was identifying with these musicians and yet at the time she was primarily drawing and honing her skills as a poet. Primarily though, supporting Mapplethorpe’s dreams. Patti became adept at finding first edition books in second hand shops that she could resell for profit, sometimes making hundreds of dollars to support Robert buying materials for his art and to buy food. They sometimes stole to survive.
Theirs is a true love story, surviving Mapplethorpe’s eventual sexual awakening as a homosexual and although this could have been tacky, as Patti and Robert are still cohabitating and he is disloyal, they have such a deep and rich understanding of one another that she is able to give him the space to find himself without being overwhelmed or threatened. And then later, as Mapplethorpe’s relationship with her changes, they remain loyal devoted friends but sometimes separate sexually while living together. It is assumed that his lifestyle reflects her own, but where Mapplethorpe drops Acid and smokes pot, Patti does not, not until much later does she even experiment with drugs. “I had only read about LSD in a small book called Collages by Anaïs Nin. I wasn’t aware of the drug culture that was blooming in the summer of ’67. I had a romantic view of drugs and considered them sacred, reserved for poets, jazz musicians, and Indian rituals.” She also had no real understanding of homosexuality influenced by Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine; she thought a man turned homosexual when he didn’t have the right woman.
Early in their relationship she gives herself a Keith Richards haircut and someone asks her if she is androgynous. “I asked what that meant. You know, like Mick Jagger. I figured that must be cool.” And it is true, that most of the stunning photos taken by Mapplethorpe of Patti Smith during their long association, that she has chosen to illustrate this book, reflect this.
And throughout their story, is also a social and musical history – the death of Robert Kennedy, Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murder which fascinates Mapplethorpe and greatly disturbs Patti – the death of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both of whom Patti has met and only recognises the importance of these encounters retrospectively. These encounters appear as almost inauspicious anecdotes, not as sensationalism. One of these moments that reveals her inner artist early on is when she gets a pass to see the Doors. She has a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison, while everyone else is in awe, she finds herself observing him in a “state of cold hyperawareness”... “I felt watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this.”
I will confess I didn’t know half of the famous names that littered this love story, but it is true that both of them had very fortunate encounters that shifted their fates. They move to live in the famous Hotel Chelsea which on its current 2011 website, claims The Hotel Chelsea is a world renowned residence for artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, and characters of the most singular and eccentric stripe which the imagination might conjure. It was from this hotel that they began to mix and mingle with influential artists.
Patti Smith meets Allen Ginsberg and he becomes a good friend and teacher and she and Mapplethorpe began to frequent Brownie’s health food restaurant ‘where the Warhol people ate lunch’, and Max’s ‘where they spent their nights.’
Eventually, Robert Mapplethorpe found the fame he was seeking and Patti Smith, as well as a poet, becomes a famous musician (she finds fame even before Robert). The book ends with Patti leaving New York to find a new life with Fred Sonic Smith and then the death of Robert Mapplethorpe from Aids at the same time she finds out she is carrying her second child.
I wept at the end, for her loss, for the great love they shared, for the romance and yes, the innocence that surrounded them both, even as Mapplethorpe explored the very limits of art and pornography – Patti Smith manages to convey the beauty and the passion behind both of their stories. For some people, the final chapters and the shifts in Mapplethorpe’s work might seem too explicit, but for me this was a very personal insight into the demons and the passions of two important artists.
Immediately on finishing the book I went to you-tube and listened to Patti Smith singing “Because the Night” and discovered her... yes, I sort of missed her, even though I knew this song, I really didn’t know the singer.
Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog.