| 02 April, 2012 13:38
Look Back: Thinking About Just Kids, Patti Smith’s Memoir
By James Cassell
In July of 1967, Patti Smith, then 20 years old and waif-like, from a south Jersey working-class family, got on a bus for Philadelphia to connect with a bus bound for New York City. Her yellow-and-red plaid suitcase contained a few items of clothing, colored drawing pencils and a copy of poet Arthur Rimbaud’s “Illuminations.”
A lot of people were dropping out back then, taking off from wherever they were and heading somewhere else. (Full disclosure: Smith and I are the same age to the day.) I took off, too, a few years later than Smith, in 1971. I hitched a ride cross-country to San Francisco, arriving with the clothes I was wearing and about $25 in my pocket. But unlike many young hipsters of the time who got it out of their system, say, in six months or a year, went back home, cut their hair and applied to grad or law school, I was determined to stick it out. And, in my own way, I did, staying for a few years along the fringes of San Francisco’s alternative subculture and attempting a life as a photographer and writer. In 1967, Smith’s odyssey was just beginning, would be long and drawn out, too, and would climax in artistic success and notoriety.
Arriving in Philadelphia, she discovered she was short the price of a ticket. “I went into a phone booth to think,” Smith writes. “It was a real Clark Kent moment.” But then luck intervened, and “…on the shelf beneath the telephone, lying on thick yellow pages, was a white patent purse. It contained a locket and thirty-two dollars, almost a week’s paycheck at my last job.” With some hesitation, Smith decided to keep the money and take the purse with the locket to the ticket counter (there was no ID in it). “I can only thank, as I have within myself many times through the years, this unknown benefactor.”
There would be other benefactors during the artist/poet/singer’s (she of the solemn-voiced, penetrating rant, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”) creative ascent, though her own grit and determination were two of the three major elements. The third was her romantic and artistic coupling with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (he of the highly stylized, coffee-table-book pornographic male nudes).
Just Kids, Smith’s memoir of life with Mapplethorpe in the late 60s and 70s, is a love story. Regardless of how one feels about the work of these two artists, I think it’s a must-read, especially for anyone trying to forge a life out of art. It is sad, joyful, compelling, annoying and heartening all at once. The chief take-away is this: If you’re hell-bound on achieving success as an artist, you need to be tough and you can’t give up. And though Smith never explicitly says so, her memoir also reads as a cautionary tale about how ambition can get out of hand, as illustrated by Mapplethorpe’s career trajectory.
Theirs is also a New York story: two artists ravenous for success in the Big Pond. Although in many ways New York is still a mecca for creative people, in the 60s and 70s it was considered the only game in town for an artist who wanted to be taken seriously. Most of the artists I knew in Washington at the time struggled not with whether to move to New York, but with when and how. There were only a handful of first-rate DC galleries 35 to 40 years ago, whereas now strong art outlets abound in the city from different areas of Northwest to the latest scene on H Street Northeast.
How many artists would be willing to go through what Smith did after arriving in New York, sleeping wherever she could, which often meant curled up in Central Park? A waitressing job ended “after spilling a tray of veal Parmigiana on a customer’s tweed suit.” But she was able to get a cashier’s job at Brentano’s bookstore. “I would hide in the bathroom while the others left,” she writes, “and after the night watchman locked up I would sleep on my coat. In the morning it would appear I had gotten to work early. I hadn’t a dime and rummaged through employees’ pockets for change to buy peanut butter crackers in the vending machine.”
Then she met Mapplethorpe, the former altar boy who saw life and art through the prism of a sacred/profane, darkness/light duality: “…Robert, though shy, nonverbal, and seemingly out of step with those around him, was very ambitious. He held Duchamp and Warhol as models. High art and high society; he aspired to them both. We were a curious mix of Funny Face and Faust.” Their prospects slowly improved—they had each other—but their days were still a struggle for food, shelter and art supplies.
Luck came around again, however, and they landed a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel, the famed residence of many creative figures in financial decline. By then, Mapplethorpe was hustling at Times Square, which he called “the Garden of Perversion. ” He told Smith: “Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that’s what I’m about.” In my mind, Mapplethorpe’s ambition over-rode his talent. His photographs, after you got beyond the shock value, were nothing new. They were highly stylized in the tradition of earlier salon photographers like Cecil Beaton and Carl Van Vechten, with influences from less commercial people such as Man Ray, Edward Weston and even Imogen Cunningham. They were aimed at a highly affluent audience who would pay big bucks to display an ornately framed photograph of a guy’s dick hanging out of his pants next to a Ming vase.
Mapplethorpe may have been a tenacious self-promoter, but his skin was thin in other ways. I was writing about photography in the late 70s and early 80s, and I approached him at his opening at Harry Lunn’s gallery on 7th Street. I asked him, straight-faced and in total seriousness, how his out-there S&M photographs were any different from what you might find in a male magazine on 42nd Street. Sam Wagstaff, his patron and lover, was standing a few feet away. I had interviewed and written about wealthy, Gary Cooper-handsome curator/collector Wagstaff when his superb photography collection was on exhibit at the Corcoran. His feelings hurt, Mapplethorpe walked away from me whimpering to Wagstaff about how my question had offended him.
Living at the Chelsea Hotel led Smith and Mapplethorpe to some of the city’s hippest venues, chiefly Max’s Kansas City where Warhol held court. Smith writes that Mapplethorpe was enamored of Warhol, felt he was his equal. “The politics at Max’s [was] very similar to high school,” she says, “except the popular people were not the cheerleaders or football heroes, and the prom queen would most certainly be a he dressed as a she, knowing more about being a she than most she’s.”
As Mapplethorpe made collages using photographs from—guess where?--male magazines he picked up on 42nd street, Smith wrote her poetry and did rock reviews for periodicals like Crawdaddy. Amid chronic financial pressure (“If we were out of money we just didn’t eat”), Smith was awakening to the implications of Mapplethorpe’s sexuality. What brought things to a head was Mapplethorpe’s affair with the socially well-connected David Croland, a top model at Boys, Inc., and the former lover of the beautiful Susan Bottomly, better known as International Velvet who starred in several Warhol films. Mapplethorpe began to move in the higher echelon of hip, queer New York society, largely accessed by Croland, through whom he was introduced to Wagstaff. It was Wagstaff who bought Mapplethorpe his first real camera, a Hasselblad, and financially jump-started his career.
Smith and Mapplethorpe’s worlds diverged even more after she met drummer/playwright Sam Shepard. Smith and the married Shepard had an intense artistic and romantic relationship. Smith was now reciting her poetry in bars and clubs around New York, but her major breakthrough was a performance at the highly prized St. Mark’s Poetry Project. With Lenny Kaye backing her up on electric guitar, Smith opened by singing Mack the Knife and went on to recite some of her own poems like “Oath” and “Fire of Unknown Origin.” There were cheers and boos, as this was the first time there had ever been poetry fused with rock n’ roll at a St. Mark’s reading.
Smith is forthcoming about her influences: Dylan, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Marianne Faithfull and Edith Piaf, to name just a few. The Beat poets, Ginsberg et al, though in descent by this time, also made their mark on her. You can hear their anger echoing in her rhythms and voice tone. And as much as Smith’s work from that period, chiefly her breakthrough album, Horses, holds up to a fair degree (I still enjoy listening to it), it falls short of the level of the best work of her idols. Which is fine. Giving comparative grades to artists is a futile enterprise. Nevertheless, listening to Morrison’s Light My Fire or Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, for example, can still give me goose bumps, just as the songs did when I first heard them over 40 years ago.
Smith’s memoir is marred somewhat by her apparent inability to cast a negative light on anyone. Maybe it’s her nature, but it affects the book’s credibility. Surely there were a few creeps among the artistic crowd or at least a couple of sleazy moments in the upswing toward major recording deals. Ironically, the closest she may get to being judgmental is in reading between the lines about Mapplethorpe’s personal and career choices. Unwittingly perhaps, she builds a case for Mapplethorpe’s selling his soul to the devil. Nevertheless, though Smith and Mapplethorpe were, eventually, romantically separated and moving in different worlds, their fierce personal and artistic loyalty and their generosity toward one another never faltered. And for that at least, one can’t help but have a great amount of respect for them.
James Cassell is an artist and writer. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.