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When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were 'Just Kids'

Walking through the Chelsea Hotel, where they once lived, Smith remembers when the renowned artists were a couple of 'awkward,' struggling unknowns, days recounted in her new book.

January 17, 2010|By Kevin Berger
  • LISTEN TO THE WALLS TALK: Smith visits the Chelsea Hotel, where she and Mapplethorpe lived together in 1969 and '70, before they gained renown.
LISTEN TO THE WALLS TALK: Smith visits the Chelsea Hotel, where she and Mapplethorpe… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — On a recent afternoon, Patti Smith pushed open the glass doors of the Chelsea Hotel and stepped into her past. When she lived in the fabled hotel in 1969 and '70, she used to sit on a bench in the lobby, a den of Pop art paintings and dusty furniture, and marvel at the artists and eccentrics tramping to their rooms.

One day she was holding a stuffed black crow, which she had just bought at the Museum of the American Indian, when Salvador Dali, in a black and scarlet cape, strolled in and placed a slim hand on her head. "You are like a crow, a gothic crow," the painter said.

Smith was visiting the Chelsea to recount her magical year at the hotel, detailed in her new book, "Just Kids." The book is a moving portrait of the artist as a young woman, and a vibrant profile of Smith's onetime boyfriend and lifelong muse, Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989.

At age 63, Smith in person shows off the intellectual electricity and emotional generosity of the bold poet who lighted up a stage in 1971, her verse amplified by the riveting squall of her friend Lenny Kaye's guitar. If she is more self-protected and reflective now, she remains the inveterate bohemian, dressed in jeans and floppy work boots, her brownish hair vaguely braided beneath a skull cap.

Direct from the source

Volumes have been written about Smith since 1975, when she released "Horses," a work of transcendent and lasting beauty, the first of nine albums that paved her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. And a small library could be built on works about Mapplethorpe, whose brazen photographs of male nudes and bondage are still lionized as either signs of cultural liberation or moral apocalypse.

"Just Kids," though, is the first book that frees both artists from their respective mystiques as punk goddess and gay provocateur. "I wanted to remind people we were once young and struggling," Smith said. "Both of us were awkward and still finding out who we were in every way. People have written about us in that period but never with the accurate voice, the accurate atmosphere, the accurate magic."

Smith unlocks her teenage diaries, baring the insecurities of "a skinny loser," and explaining why at 20 she gave up a newborn daughter to foster parents. She met Mapplethorpe by chance in Brooklyn in 1967, when she moved there from southern New Jersey. The duo fell instantly in tune with each other and became their biggest mutual fans. "Nobody sees as we do, Patti," Mapplethorpe would say.

Smith offers new insights into the former Catholic altar boy, who could be sweet and tender, and was as driven to make it as an artist as Smith was. She limns Mapplethorpe's pain at making peace with his sexuality and confesses her heartbreak at losing him to a sexual demimonde she at first didn't comprehend. Although she had read the outlaw works of Jean Genet, she writes, "I knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality."

The book was a long time coming. Smith made a pact with Mapplethorpe as he was dying to tell his story. But as she began making notes for the book, her original pianist, Richard Sohl, died, and in 1994, her husband, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith, and her brother, Todd, passed away.

"I couldn't even touch a book about loss," she said. In fact, she was dropped from her initial publisher for missing deadlines.

While "Just Kids" is ultimately a wonderful portal into the dawn of Smith's art, its elegance and power stem from being written by the mature artist today. Many rock performers are frozen in the past, but Smith has continued to evolve and embody the very un-rock themes of aging and dying and aiming for joy as time winds down.

"Patti is the most positive human being I've ever met," said Kaye, who has now been performing with her for almost 40 years. "She looks for the light in everything."

A hotel like no other

"You know what? It's not that different in here," Smith said, walking through the Chelsea lobby, which still looked liked a modern art gallery curated in the psychic state of delirium. "Of course," she added, "back then they didn't have a gift shop."

Inside a claustrophobic elevator, its rich wood a throwback to another era, Smith declared, "I met Muhammad Ali in this elevator. I used to perform in boxing shoes and I had them over my shoulder when he walked in. He went" -- she mimics two jabs -- "and I was just speechless."

At the dark end of a corridor on the second floor, Smith stood outside the room that she and Mapplethorpe shared. "I really loved this little room," she said. It was being renovated and so was locked. She pointed to the room next door, where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, under the demon spell of alcohol, penned his last words in 1953.

Smith explained she paid $65 a week in rent, which was exactly how much she was earning as a bookstore clerk. For his part, Mapplethorpe drummed up the occasional odd job, like moving pianos.

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