Rating: 4 stars
I admire Patti Smith as an artist. I love her albums Horses and Easter, and her collaboration with REM on the song E-bow The Letter. I didn’t know much about her as a person, other than impressions from articles she’s written and interviews with her in the press. I had a picture of her as difficult. Reading this book has changed that picture.
Smith takes her childhood and adolescence as her starting point. I didn’t warm to her straight away. I found her writing brittle and had a sense that she was aware of her own voice in a way that restricted the story. Even her description of her first sexual encounter resulting in pregnancy and her decision to have the baby adopted seemed coldly remote.
Once Smith moves to New York, the story comes alive. It is a remarkable story, a tale of creativity, discovery, reinvention and, of course, love. Robert Mapplethorpe is the great love of Patti Smith’s life, I think it’s fair to say. From their initial accidental meeting, to Mapplethorpe rescuing her from a bad date, through all their adventures and misadventures together until their final phone call, theirs is a bond that transforms and survives.
They live a desperate, hand to mouth existence. They scrape together money through low-paid jobs, trading in secondhand books and, eventually, for Mapplethorpe, through prostitution. All of this so that Mapplethorpe, supported by Smith, can focus on his art. He is supportive of Smith’s art, but she is less accepting of his support. She comes across as fiercely independent within her own self, although sacrificial and maternal towards Mapplethorpe. For her, it is all about getting his work recognised. She is secondary.
I felt, as always, a rising pleasure when he used a reference to me in his work, as if through him I would be remembered.
As he changes, though, and seeks to find his own path, becoming aware of his homosexuality, pulling away from Smith, she is almost forced into ploughing her own furrow. They live in the Chelsea Hotel and she encounters all kinds of people. Poets, artists, musicians. A fair few of them famous. Dalí is one. Smith is standing in the lobby one day, holding a stuffed crow.
… the heavy glass door opened as if swept by wind and a familiar figure in a black and scarlet cape entered. It was Salvador Dalí. He looked around the lobby nervously, and then, seeing my crow, smiled. He placed his elegant, bony hand atop my head and said: “You are like a crow, a gothic crow.”
This enchanting encounter sums up Smith and Mapplethorpe’s Chelsea Hotel existence. Surreal and brilliant.
There are people along the way who encourage her in her art, alongside Mapplethorpe, but she ignores them. It’s hard to say why. It doesn’t seem to be lack of confidence. Perhaps she didn’t feel she had discovered who she was at the time. That came later.
One person that Smith credits with unlocking the poet within her is Jim Carroll. She became close to him while struggling to come to terms with Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, hoping they would become lovers. That wasn’t to be.
I would never serve as the source of his inspiration, though in attempting to articulate the drama of my feelings I became more prolific and I believe a better writer.
I loved this about her. Her acceptance of the situation and what she got out of it. It’s something that speaks to me: the unrequited love charged with possibility becoming the fuel for creativity.
Throughout the book, Smith’s lack of awareness of who people are, and her feigned indifference when she does know their name, opens doors for her, bringing her experiences that change her and consequently change her life. I found myself wishing that I could be more like her. Insouciant with the courage of my convictions, believing in something that transcends, trusting that letting go of bog standard securities might set me free to be truly me. Such people are rare, I think. People who have genuine talent, I mean, and aren’t just over confident gobshites who blag their way to celebrity.
Smith comes across as interested in everything, finding challenges in everything, open to experience but focused throughout. She’s no airy-fairy hippy. She’s finding her voice.
I loved the context of the time they were in New York. Warhol’s Factory was waning. Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin were briefly around. Dylan was a star. Lou Reed was in his ascendancy. People who changed popular culture were on the periphery of Smith and Mapplethorpe’s existence but accessible to them, and they took the difference their predecessors had created and wrought something new from it. It must have been an incredible time to be there, before the cult of celebrity took hold, before those celebrated for their creativity ceased to be accessible.
Reading about Smith’s experience of watching Joplin perform was interesting. Smith is such an influential musician and writer herself that it felt strange to imagine her before her fame started, being in awe of and influenced by other artists.
We all went to see Janis play in Central Park … I stood with Bobby [Neuwerth] on the side of the stage, mesmerized by her electric energy.
The pinnacle of the book for me is Smith’s first performance with her band and the recording of Horses. Mapplethorpe eventually persuades her to give a performance of her poetry and she ropes in her friend Lenny Kaye to provide a musical accompaniment. She goes down a storm, of course, and she meets Clive Davis who signs her to Arista. The band plays various venues, and Dylan and Reed are among those who see them perform.
The story slows from this point as success in their different spheres and changes in their relationship status conspire to separate Smith and Mapplethorpe. The end comes with Mapplethorpe’s illness and death.
The book is a love story. Smith’s enduring love for Mapplethorpe affects the story she tells. She can’t be objective, of course she can’t, but she’s enough of a story teller to allow the grit and grind of life in late 60s/early 70s New York come through. She’s forgiving of Mapplethorpe, who is the more selfish of the pair, enabled by Smith to be so. As she says herself, he was the artist of her life and, without the other, I wonder whether either would have held on to become the creative force each eventually became.