Patti Smith And Robert Mapplethorpe: Kindred Spirits
This interview was originally broadcast on January 19, 2010. 'Just Kids' was recently nominated for a National Book Award and will be released in a paperback edition on November 2, 2010.
It was in 1967, on her first day in New York, that 20-year-old aspiring poet Patti Smith met fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Their friendship, romance and creative collaboration began on that day and lasted until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.
Both children of religious upbringings and influenced by ideas of outsider culture, the pair would stay up painting and listening to records in their Brooklyn apartment before Mapplethorpe eventually moved to San Francisco.
In the course of their friendship, Smith would become a punk icon and Mapplethorpe a famed photographer. Smith's new memoir, Just Kids, tells the story of their 22-year friendship. She joins Fresh Air for a conversation about her career and her singular relationship with Mapplethorpe.
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey Joe")
Ms. PATTI SMITH (Musician): (Singing) Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?
BIANCULLI: That's Patti Smith's first studio recording, a single she made in 1974, in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady studio. Before Patti Smith earned the name the godmother of punk, she was - well, that's the subject of her memoir, "Just Kids," which is a National Book Award Finalist and is out next week in paperback. It's her story about growing up in New Jersey, moving to New York in 1967 and slowly evolving into a poet, songwriter and performer.
The book revolves around her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met just after she got to New York. They became soul mates, both aspiring to be artists. She became famous first. The album that made her famous, "Horses," had an iconic photo of her taken by Mapplethorpe. He later became known for his erotic and sadomasochistic photos of gay men. He died of AIDS in 1989. Terry spoke with Patti Smith earlier this year.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Patti Smith, welcome back to FRESH AIR. At the beginning of your memoir, we get a glimpse of how different your life might have been. In 1966, when you were about 20, and you were going to Glassboro State College, which is now Rowan University, you were studying to be a teacher, you got pregnant by a boy who was 17, a boy you describe as even more callow than you were.
So you were pregnant, and you decided to have the baby and give it up for adoption. When you were trying to figure out what to do, what did you think your life would have been like at that time if you'd decided to keep the baby?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I was a lower-middle-class kid. My family had no money. There was no room in our small house, where there were already four kids, including myself, living. I would have had to get a job in a factory, ask my mother to help me, and she was already overworked. She was a waitress.
It would've been difficult for everyone, I think, and the child would have had no father. I felt that I just wasn't ready as a human being, I wasn't prepared and that although I knew that I would be responsible and loving that I just was not equipped to embark on that path.
GROSS: I think that this pregnancy was a turning point in your life and contributed to your decision to leave college, give up on the idea of being a teacher and go to New York. It's in New York that you met Robert Mapplethorpe, and you know, you changed the course of each other's lives. Would you tell the story of how you met Robert Mapplethorpe?
Ms. SMITH: Well, our - my first meeting was very simple. I had some friends at Pratt Institute, people that went to my high school that had the means to go to art school, and I was looking for them, hoping for a little shelter since I had nowhere to sleep that night.
But when I went to visit them, they had moved, and the boy that answered the door didn't know where my friends had moved and said, well, go in there and maybe my roommate will know where they are.
And I went in a room, and there was a boy sleeping, lying on a little iron bed and just with a mass of dark curls. And as soon as I walked in, he awoke and looked at me and smiled. And then I talked, and he knew where my friends had lived.
But the thing that I remember, the very first impression I have of Robert is waking up and smiling.
GROSS: Then he helped bail you out of a possibly difficult situation.
Ms. SMITH: Yes, he was my rescuer because, I mean, it might seem contradictory that, you know, a girl has the experience that I had would still be extremely inexperienced in a dating situation, but I was. I had very little experience and I had never dated an older man. He was probably, like, under 30, but he seemed like a grownup to me.
And I was so hungry. I hadn't eaten in a few days, and my boss was friendly with him. He was a science fiction writer, and he asked me to go to dinner after work at Brentano's.
And we walked all the way to Tompkins Square Park and sat on a bench, and I kept wishing it would just end, and then he asked me to come up to his apartment, which was nearby, and have a cocktail. And I thought, oh man, this is it, I'm - you know, I was just imagining, you know, what's going to happen. I'm not going to be able to get away. You know, he's going to try to get me drunk. I'm going to get raped.
I mean, this poor guy. I mean, I'm sure he wasn't so horrible, but I was just in a - well, I was afraid, and I was thinking about what, should I do. Should I run?
And then I looked, and as if in answer to a prayer, here comes walking down the path this boy who I had just briefly met now twice and walking alone, you know, in full - you know, just dressed like 1967 in a sheepskin vest and a lot of love beads with long, curly hair, looked a bit like Tim Buckley.
And I just impulsively ran up to him and said, do you remember me? And he said yes, and I said, will you just pretend you're my boyfriend? And he said sure.
And I dragged him over to the science fiction guy, and I said, uh, this is my boyfriend, he's really mad, and I have to go home now. And the guy looked at me like I was crazy, and I said to Robert: run. And he grabbed my hand, and we ran away.
And he did, he rescued me. In my mind, he rescued me, and he was my knight ever since.
GROSS: At some point you realized that Mapplethorpe was gay. At some point he realized that he was gay. And you found out in 1968, and he said to you that he was going to San Francisco and that if you didn't come with him, he'd turn homosexual. It sounds like he didn't want to be gay at that moment, that he was hoping you'd help save him from that.
Ms. SMITH: Well, I don't think it was that he wanted me to save him. I just -he just didn't want our relationship to end. I mean, I think that it was scary territory for Robert, but obviously he felt this in his nature.
I had no inkling that Robert was suffering this conflict. I knew something was wrong and something was bothering him and that he had become increasingly moodier, and there was something that he couldn't communicate with me, and this frustrated me because we were so open with one another. But it was just too painful for him to tell me.
And also, one had to consider a factor that he came from a very intense Catholic military family, and it wasn't easy for him to lay out his inner world to anyone.
GROSS: How did it affect his relationship with you when he came to terms with being gay and had lovers and eventually had a long-time lover? Were you able to stay as close, even though the relationship had changed?
Ms. SMITH: Oh, Robert and I always were just as close. I mean, we had to work out, obviously, the physical aspect of our relationship, and it was really me who, in the end, severed the physical aspect of our relationship because -well, for various reasons, because I just tend to be monogamous, and there was always the concern about social disease.
I mean, we had - I had gotten gonorrhea from him, and I - it wasn't even the social disease that horrified me as much as the needle regimen that you had to receive to get rid of it, and I had a terrible fear and phobia of things like that.
And you know, in the end, we worked that out, I mean, because we were so close, and our love for each other was so deep that the absence of - and we were still physical with one another. He was always very affectionate. Until the day he died, we were still affectionate towards one another.
GROSS: In your book, you write about how Mapplethorpe's work started to change and become more sadomasochistic in its imagery, which he became quite famous for, and you write that that imagery was bewildering and frightening to you.
You write: He couldn't share things with me because it was so outside our realm, and that you couldn't comprehend the brutality of his images of self-inflicted pain. It was hard for you to match it with the boy you had met.
Can you talk a little bit about - a little bit more about your reaction to his images and what you found disturbing and incomprehensible about it?
Ms. SMITH: Well, they're disturbing images. I'm just...
GROSS: They're meant to be disturbing. Right.
Ms. SMITH: I mean, Robert - I mean, a lot of my reaction was out of, first of all, naitivity(ph). I didn't know anything about that world. I still know very little about that world, and my protective instincts for Robert - they frightened me.
I worried that he would be hurt, or something bad would happen to him, but he was - always assured me that all of these situations were controlled, consensual situations.
The imagery was brutal, and I had never seen anything like these images, but I have to say, as always, after I felt that Robert was safe, I stepped back and looked at them as work, and they were brilliant images. I mean, some of them, there was so much blood and disorder, they had an abstract expressionist look.
I mean, there were a few of these images that I thought were actually brilliant, and so we were able, after I processed the subject matter, to talk about these images as art, but I was never really curious to talk about them in any other way, and he respected that.
BIANCULLI: Patti Smith, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with singer, songwriter and now author Patti Smith. Her memoir, "Just Kids," comes out next week in paperback.
GROSS: Now, I found it really interesting that before you started, like, singing on stage, you acted in a few plays. You collaborated with Sam Shepard, who you were very close with. You acted on stage in that, acted on stage in something else, and you finally realized that you were yourself on stage. It was hard for you to become somebody else. How did that realization lead to becoming a performer?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I know from an early age that I like - well, I'm very comfortable in front of people. When I was a young girl, I'd love giving book reports. I remember...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's great.
Ms. SMITH: I remember once I was - one of my teachers was talking about "Moby Dick," and she was so boring. And you know, most of the kids in my classroom were semi-illiterate, you know, and they're, like, spitting spitballs, and I was extremely restless. And she got fed up with me, and she said Patti Lee, if you think you can teach this better, you get up here and teach it. And I said sure.
I was really happy. I went up there, and I laid out "Moby Dick" for those kids in a way that, like, they comprehended "Moby Dick," you know? And I enjoyed that, and that's sort of what made me think I could be a good teacher because I really didn't know practically how to make money in the world, and I thought, well, I could have a job as a teacher because I like talking in front of people.
And I had no - I did plays in college. I played Phaedra. I was in musical comedy, and I did very well, but the memorization killed me. I'm not good at memorizing, and it gave me a lot of anxiety. I hated the makeup. I hated all that pancake makeup. I didn't really like dressing for parts.
So I liked being on stage. I just didn't like the theatrical aspect of being in front of people.
GROSS: You say that until a friend suggested that you be in a rock 'n' roll band, it had never occurred to you. It was just like not part of your world.
Ms. SMITH: No. Why would it? You know, I'm not a musician. You know, I don't play any - I didn't play any instrument. I didn't have any specific talents. I mean I came from the South Jersey, Philadelphia area, and in the early '60s, everybody sang. They sang on street corners, three-part harmonies, a cappella. I knew - most of my friends were better singers than me.
There was nothing in what I did that would give a sense that I should be in a rock 'n' roll band. Also, girls weren't in rock 'n' roll bands. I mean, they sang, but, you know, the closest thing to a rock singer - a real rock singer that we had was Grace Slick, and I certainly didn't have Grace Slick's voice.
GROSS: You know, you didn't think of yourself as a singer per se, that your friends had better voices than you did. But you created this new style really that was a combination of poetry and music. It wasn't about having, like, a perfect singer's voice.
It was the style that you performed in, the personality that you put into it, the kind of defiance that you had in some songs, the energy. Would you talk about what you felt you were doing early on that was different from what you'd seen other people do?
Ms. SMITH: I think my perception of myself was really as a performer and a communicator. You know, my - I had a mission when we recorded "Horses." My mission was...
GROSS: That's your first album.
Ms. SMITH: My first album "Horses," my mission and the collective band mission was really on one level to merge poetry and rock 'n' roll, but more humanistically, to reach out to other disenfranchised people.
You know, we, in 1975, the, you know, young homosexual kids were, you know, being disowned by their families. The kids were - you know, kids like me, who were a little weird or a little different, were often persecuted in their small towns.
And it wasn't just, you know, because of sexual persuasion. It was for any reason: for being an artist, for being different, for having political views, for just wanting to be free. And I really recorded the record to connect with these people, you know.
And also in terms of our place in rock 'n' roll, just to create some bridge between our great artists that we had just lost, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison among them, and to create space for what I felt would be the new guard, which I didn't really include myself. I was really anticipating people or bands like the Clash and the Ramones.
I was anticipating in my mind that a new breed would come - Television. A new breed would come and they would be less materialistic, more bonded with the people and not so glamorous.
That's - I didn't - I wasn't thinking so much of music. I wasn't thinking so much of perfection or stardom or any of that stuff. I was thinking I had this mission and I thought I would do this record and then go back to my writing and my drawing and, you know, return to my, you know, my somewhat abnormal normal life. But "Horses" took me on a whole different path.
GROSS: Is there a track from "Horses" that particularly illustrates what you were describing as what your mission was?
Ms. SMITH: "Birdland."
Ms. SMITH: I think "Birdland" because - for various reasons. "Birdland" was an improvisation - built on an improvisation. It very, it so much exemplifies the communication of my band, especially between Richard, Lenny and I.
And it speaks of this new breed, you know, the new generations who will be dreaming in animation, you know, the new generations that will race across the fields no longer presidents but prophets. That was my - it was like my telegram to the new breed.
GROSS: Oh, let's hear it. This is "Birdland" from Patti Smith's first album, "Horses."
(Soundbite of song "Birdland")
Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I am helium raven, and this movie is mine. So he cried out as he stretched the sky, pushing it all out like latex cartoon. Am I all alone in this generation?
We'll just be dreaming of animation night and day and won't let up, won't let up, and I see them coming in.
BIANCULLI: Patti Smith spoke with Terry Gross earlier this year. Her memoir, "Just Kids," is a finalist for the National Book Award and comes out in paperback next week. We'll have more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from earlier this year with singer, songwriter and now author, Patti Smith. Her memoir, "Just Kids," is a National Book Award finalist and comes out in paperback next week. It's about her formative years when she was becoming a poet, songwriter and performer. Her soul mate was fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who later became known for his photographs, including the cover photo of the 1975 album which made Patti Smith famous.
GROSS: Robert Mapplethorpe did the very iconic photograph for the cover of "Horses." Would you briefly describe the photo?
Ms. SMITH: Well, it's very classic photograph by Robert, very simple. I'm standing against a white wall with a triangular shadow and dressed in the clothes typical of myself then in just an old white shirt - a clean, old white shirt. Sort of a black ribbon that symbolizes a tie or a cravat; black pants; jacket slung over my shoulder, looking directly at Robert. It has a little bit of Baudelaire, little bit of Catholic boy, a little bit of Frank Sinatra and a lot of Robert.
GROSS: What impact do you think that photo had on how people perceived you?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I, you know, I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: I know people really liked it. I know the record company didn't. And...
GROSS: They didn't? That's such a great photo. Why didn't the record company like it?
Ms. SMITH: Because my hair was messy. Because, you know, it just it was a little incomprehensible to them at the time. But I fought for it and they did try to airbrush my hair, but I...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: ...made sure that was fixed. People were very upset, constantly, about my appearance when I was young. I don't know what it was. You know, they just, it was very hard for them to factor. But I've always had that problem. Even as a child, you know, I used to go the beach when I was a little kid and just want to wear my dungarees and my flannel shirt and the whole time people would be, why are you wearing that? Why don't you get a bathing suit? You know, why, it's like leave me alone.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: It's just like, I'm not bothering you. Why are you worried about, you know, what I look like? You know, it's just I'm not trying to bother anybody. But people loved the photograph. The people on the streets loved the photograph, and it gave Robert some instant attention. I think it was his, you know, the - where he - it really helped, you know, launch his work into the public consciousness. And so we were both very happy about that. And the funniest thing, and sort of the sweetest thing, was when I started performing after the record came out, I would go to clubs anywhere - it could be Denmark, it could be in Youngstown, Ohio - and I would come on stage and at least half of the kids had white shirts and black ties on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: It was kind of cool. We all had suddenly turned Catholic.
GROSS: My guest is Patti Smith and her new memoir "Just Kids" is about her relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and you say this was at the same time you found out you were pregnant with your second child. You were married to the musician Fred "Sonic" Smith then; you'd moved to Detroit, where you were living. And Mapplethorpe's lover, his longtime companion Sam, died before he did. And you say that to comfort him, you wrote the lyrics; Fred - Fred "Sonic" Smith wrote the music for the song, "Paths That Cross," - paths that cross will cross again. It's a great song. And I'd like to just - I'd like to play it, and I'd like you to talk a little bit about writing it for Mapplethorpe.
Ms. SMITH: Well, it's a - that - well, the night that Sam died, I couldn't sleep because I knew that - I was in Detroit, Robert was in New York, and I could just imagine his suffering. I could feel him just - not just the pain of losing Sam, but, you know, the shadow that it also cast upon himself, because he was counting on Sam to pull through, because Sam was always the sturdier one.
He was, like, physically like a god, you know, even though he was over 20 years older than both of us. He was never sick. He was virile, in perfect health, and I think that I could feel all of these things that Robert was feeling and thinking. And so I sat up all night and wrote this little song, and I tried to write an optimistic song. It is an optimistic song, I think.
Ms. SMITH: And write it in a sort of Sufi style, which - Sam loved the Sufi ideology. And it's interesting, I wrote this song for Robert to be comforted. I knew when I was writing it that one day I would be listening to it thinking of Robert. But this song had a long, long life after that. Many people who lost loved ones from AIDS played this at their funerals, their wakes. People have sent me pictures of their headstones of their loved ones with the words carved on the headstone.
It really became, within a certain community, a song of comfort for a lot of people who lost their loved ones, specifically through AIDS. And, you know, so I - you know, truthfully, when I wrote it, I knew that I would listen to it thinking of Robert, but I never anticipated that I would also someday listen to it thinking of my late husband and my brother and Richard Sohl, who played so beautifully on it, on "Dream Of Life." So the song is - it's seen a lot of loss in its wake.
GROSS: Let's hear that song, "Paths That Cross." This is Patti Smith, as recorded on her 1998 album "Dream Of Life."
(Soundbite of song "Paths That Cross")
Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Speak to me, speak to me, heart. I feel a needing to bridge the clouds, softly go, a way I wish to know, to know, a way I wish to know, to know. Oh, you'll ride, surely dance, in a ring, backwards and forwards. Those who seek feel the glow, a glow we all will know, will know. A glow we all will know, will know. On that day filled with grace, on the way to hearts communion, steps we take, steps we trace, all the way to heart's reunion. Paths that cross will cross again. Paths that cross will cross again.
BIANCULLI: That's Patti Smith from her 1998 album "Dream Of Life." That song was written to comfort Robert Mapplethorpe, who is the subject of her memoir, "Just Kids."
We'll conclude her conversation with Terry after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR.
Let's get back to Terry's conversation from earlier this year with singer, songwriter and now author, Patti Smith. Her memoir "Just Kids" is a National Book Award finalist and comes out in paperback next week.
GROSS: You write that, you know, when Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in March of '89, the morning that he died - you describe your feelings and you say that you were shuddering, overwhelmed by a sense of excitement, acceleration as if because of the closeness that you experienced with Robert, you were to be privy to his new adventure, the miracle of his death. You say this wild sensation stayed with you for some days.
Could you describe that? Did you know he was dying, when you - did - had you gotten the phone call when you felt this, or were you just feeling that, you know, without even...
Ms. SMITH: No, I felt that after he died.
GROSS: After he died.
Ms. SMITH: I had already received the call that he had died. I mean, we knew that he was dying. We knew that he was dying. The last couple of weeks of his life, I talked to him - I talked to Robert in the last hour that he could still speak. And I listened to his breathing before I went to sleep. His brother called me and let me listen to his breathing, and he died that morning. So that sensation that I felt was his, you know, acceleration into his next place after death. I could really feel that.
I've experienced a lot of death since Robert. I sat with Allen Ginsberg when he died. I was with my husband when he died, my parents. But Robert, the acceleration and energy I felt after Robert's death was unique. And it did stay with me for quite a while. And I think that each of us - you know, our energy leaves in a different way according to the person, you know, according to the energy of the person, the way the spirit manifests. Each of us die differently.
And we have - you know, I believe that. I believe we all have a unique journey, whether it's a journey of pure energy, if there's any intelligence within the journey. But I think each of us have our own way of dissipating or entering a new field.
GROSS: You say that one of the people who you were with when he died was Allen Ginsberg. And in your memoir, you mention some advice that Ginsberg had given you after your husband died. He said, let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life's celebration. Having experienced as much death as you have, is that good advice, do you think?
Ms. SMITH: Yes. I mean, I think that, you know, there - the idea that time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds aren't really ever healed. We just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days we're going to feel intense pain all over again and we just have to say, okay, I know you. If - you can come along with me today, in the same way that sometimes we start laughing out - in the middle of nowhere remembering something that happened with someone we've lost.
And, you know, life is the best thing that we have. We each have a life. We each have to negotiate it and navigate it. And I think it's very important that we enjoy our life, that we get everything we can out of it. And it doesn't take away from our love of the departed. I mean, I take Fred along with me in the things that I do, or Robert or my father or my mother, you know, whoever wants to come along, they can be with me. And, you know, and if I want them, I can sense them.
You know, we have our own life, but we can still walk with the people that we miss or that we lose. And I think it's very important to not be afraid to experience joy in the middle of sorrow. When my brother died, my sister and I sat with his body - our beloved brother - and we wept. And then I don't know what happened, one of us triggered laughter in the other. My brother and sister and I used to laugh so much that we would get sick. And my sister and I started laughing, sitting with my brother, as if he had infected us.
And we laughed so hard that we were scolded by the funeral director. And which - you know, my brother, who was so mischievous, I'm sure caused all of this. But it's all right. You know, we knew the depth of our sorrow. So it was all right for us to also, you know, experience some joy in his presence because, you know, that's what our life is - you know, it's the fearful symmetry of Blake, you know, joy and sorrow. You don't want to just feel one of them. They're both valuable to the spirit.
GROSS: Patti Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SMITH: Oh, you're welcome. Nice to talk to you, too.
BIANCULLI: Patti Smith, speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. Patti Smith's memoir, "Just Kids," is a National Book Award finalist. It comes out in paperback next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.