Katharine, Robert, and Patti

When Patti Smith accepted her medal last Thursday night she talked about two personal moments in which Katharine Hepburn touched her life. The first was when she, as a young girl, first read Little Women and was introduced to Joe March; Smith described feeling so connected to that character, a boyish and headstrong young woman, a writer. She then described waiting on Katharine Hepburn in New York working in a book store; it was after Spencer Tracy had passed, but Katharine Hepburn would touch some of the books and say, “Spencer would have liked that.” Later, when Smith’s husband died, she remembered that moment and felt better about her own desire to still shop for her husband.

Those descriptions of how Katharine Hepburn helped Patti Smith through two major parts of her life—her difficult adolescence and a large loss—made me think about those people or figures who, just by being themselves, allow us to be ourselves as well. And Robert Mapplethorpe is also a person, as we’ve seen throughout the memoir, who allowed her to become the person she wanted to be, to become her most authentic self.

And, in turn, Patti Smith has become that person for musicians, artists, writers, and even Mawrters. Before accepting this blogging position, Patti Smith felt vague and far way. I was a fan, obviously, but as I read through Just Kids and then processed that reading through various blog posts, her image became sharper and more defined in my head. Then I got to meet her, like really meet her, and she not only lived up to that image, but felt even stronger and even more genuine.

In a very important time in my life, only a few months before I graduate from college, I met a person who told me to go after and work for what I wanted; I met a person who validated my desire to write and create, to perform even if I only know four chords on the guitar; I met a person who reminded me to love the people in my life fully and that there are teachers, collaborators and supporters in surprising and unique places. And, in that way, Patti Smith has pushed me to become my most authentic self as well.

“Did art get us?”

These are obviously very sad pages. It’s not as if Robert’s death is a surprise. Not only are the historical facts well-established, but his impending death hangs heavily over the book from the very beginning. Nevertheless, it’s heart-wrenching to read, despite Patti’s beautiful, lovingly poetic tributes that surround all the details.

One of those details was Robert’s curious question: “Patti, did art get us?” It’s a complicated question, and Patti rightly shrugs it off, with no regrets. But the devotion of both Patti and Robert to art, and how it played out over their lives, reminded me of some of Robert and Patti’s interactions from earlier in the book. I was especially reminded of Patti’s early description of herself as the bad girl trying to be good and Robert as the good boy trying to be bad. This dynamic lasted to the very end, with Robert trying “everything but prayer” to heal himself, and Patti praying ceaselessly to make his suffering sufferable, convinced that Robert is still holding hands with God on his way toward death.

In an earlier section of the book, Patti talked about Robert describing himself as pure evil. “You don’t have to be evil to be different,” she’d told him then. “You are different. Artists are their own breed.” She goes on to tell us her readers that she “believed he would once again embrace the knowledge that there is no pure evil, nor pure good, only purity.” When I read that the first time, I wondered what it meant exactly. “Only purity.” Pure what, really?

The sacred and the profane loom large across the artistic bodies of work of both Patti and Robert. Given the horrendously immoral response to the AIDS crisis that came from the conservative, often Christian, establishment in the early 1980’s, it’s no surprise that Robert would embrace the profane in an attempt to undermine the sacred attacks on him and his fellow travelers (the horrible bullying of the beautiful human being of Marlon Riggs comes to mind). It’s a path that other artists have followed in his wake, embracing a posture of pure evil to challenge and expose the real evils of disease and intolerance and narrow-minded hatred and injustice. Diamanda Galas, for one, has made quite a notable career doing such things.

Yet it’s a posture nonetheless. During Patti’s (excellent, charming) afternoon performance for the students last week, she jokingly mocked her own cool artistic poses from the 1970’s. “There are no pictures of me smiling in the 70’s,” she laughed. “I was too cool,” she said, launching into a set of mock caricatures of her iconic photographs, most of which were taken by Robert. “Nowadays all my pictures are of me grinning like a big dork,” she went on to say, and ended her talk with an inspirational set of comments about not being afraid to be embarrassed in public, capped off with a brave a cappella performance of “Because the Night.” On the face of it, this admission of her former posturing seems to be at odds with “Only purity.” Is art a pose, or is it pure?

So I got to thinking about art that’s seen as pure evil, and art that’s seen as pure good, sticking with the traditional understandings of sacred and profane as defined by traditional Christian symbols. I’m no art historian, but I do know pop music, so that’s where my mind went.

On the pure evil side of the spectrum, I recalled the end of the (excellent) documentary Until the Light Takes Us, an examination of the Norwegian black metal scene known for its explicitly anti-Christian symbols, corpse-painted band members, real-life arson of historic churches, and ghastly murders and suicides. But even here, Darkthrone multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and black metal legend Fenriz looks sadly at the camera and says “A big part of me wishes that this whole thing didn’t turn into a trend. That’s what f&!#ing sucked, and sucks still. Then again, you know, people like to dress up.” The pose seems quite present here.


On the pure good side of the spectrum, I recalled conversations with friends of mine who play worship music in praise bands at Evangelical churches. One such drummer told me he had to quit the band because he felt guilty when congregants told him they’d felt the Holy Spirit move during a moment in one of his songs, knowing full well that it was his manipulative cymbal flourish that had produced such a feeling. The possibilities for posturing in such music is quite well known and frequently discussed among such musicians, as this video demonstrates:


So it appears Patti was right.  There is no pure evil and no pure good.  But where’s the “only purity”?

Again, my discipline of Sociology is happy to explode notions of purity and authenticity in art, personality, and elsewhere. Everything is fabricated, socially constructed, imagined, idealized, and performed. But this explosion is not meant to diminish what remains. The performances we try out in front of each other are the only reality that we’ll ever have. They may be posed, but they’re not fake.

Ruth Finnegan studied music making subcultures in the English town of Milton Keynes. As a good social scientist, she tried to map the obvious social categories of class, race, gender, and sexuality onto these musical taste communities. But nothing fit. She then realized she needed to reverse the causality. The social circumstances were not producing the musical tastes and practices. Rather, the activities and performances and musical expressions within these enclaves were in fact producing profoundly important social communities, identities, and moral pathways through life.

Simon Frith argues that engagement with music and art allows us not to discover who we “really are” (since such a thing doesn’t exist), but rather allows us to try on different identities and personalities to become who we wish to be. I think this is what Patti had in mind with her notion of purity. And I think this is what Robert and Patti succeeded at so admirably.

Kurt Vonnegut said that Mother Night was the only novel of his that he knew what the moral was: “We are who we pretend to be. So be careful who you pretend to be.”

“I did alright, didn’t I?” Robert asked Patti as he was dying. “Yes, you did well,” she replied.

Magnificat: Mother, Child, Death, and the Most Beautiful Work of All

“Robert dying: creating silence. Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express.”

In the Magificat, the earliest known Marian canticle (and Latin for “my soul magnifies”), Mary discovers that she is pregnant and wonders aloud that God “hath regarded the humility of his handmaid”: “For He that is mighty hath magnified me.” Although I am not Catholic, I came to understand why followers love Mary so dearly when I had my children. To feel blessed because you have been miraculously gifted with this child, but to also know that this perfect little biscuit must also some day die, as we all must, is the most glorious—and piteous—magnification of joy and mortality one’s soul can endure.

Perhaps it is especially since Patti and Robert both shared both devotion to, and abnegation of, Catholic iconography and the faith itself that I can’t help but draw a constellation connecting Mary and Patti. They share the joys and pains of mothers whose beloved offspring belonged to them and yet were somehow born wanting to belong to everyone—and, more, to a higher purpose.

Patti is mother to her own actual children, but she had long been so to Robert: through his early, difficult years when he was straining to hear his true calling; when, via his trademark sacred profanity, he became the object of desire to legions of followers; and in the last years of his life, when he was publicly persecuted for his work. The parallels aren’t neat, and Robert Mapplethorpe was no Jesus, but still. They’re there.

What illustrates the comparison most painfully, for me, is that Patti discovered she was pregnant at the same time that she learned that Robert had been diagnosed with AIDS. Patti, having been busy with family life in Michigan for years, hadn’t spoken with Robert in some time, and when she picked up the phone to call him, and heard that he was hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia, she cried, instinctively covering her belly. “He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life.”

Mary and Patti: our ladies of sorrows. As Mary hears Simeon’s prophesy about her son’s rise and demise, Patti—knowing that Robert was now living on borrowed time—recalled her early sense of foreboding about Robert: “Every fear I had once harbored seemed to materialize with the suddenness of a bright sail bursting into flames. My youthful premonition of Robert crumbling into dust returned with piteous clarity.”

Yet, there they are, both with their perfect babies. There is Mary, pictured, as she most often is, as Madonna and child—her predestined Savior. There is Patti with her newborn daughter and dying soul mate. When the two reunited in LA after Patti’s daughter, Jesse, was born, Robert asked to take a picture of mother and child: “I held Jesse in my arms, and she reached out to him, smiling,” she writes. “‘Patti,’ he said, pressing the shutter. ‘She’s perfect.’ It was our last photograph.”

And Patti, as mother to her brilliant, wayward, and courageous son of sorts, writes of Robert’s corporeal and spiritual beauty: “…it occurred to me looking around at all your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still the most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.”

On a personal note, I am amazed to report that I now have my own Patti/mother story. By way of background, I have always given each of my three children royal monikers, for our mutual amusement (and my abiding hope that some amazing painter will one day fancy making a regal portrait of them). My eldest, 12, is Zuzu the Just, for her ferocious sense of ethics and fairness; my youngest, almost 4, is Will the Undaunted, for his intrepid cast of mind and body. My middle child, 9, is Frances the Blessed, because she is a sort of changeling, who does not believe that any lines exist between magic, science, and spirituality. Her career goal, she told me a few months ago, is to be “a quantum physicist who discovers the dimension where souls are located.” Awesome.

Naturally, I took Frances (or, as we more often call her, “Frankie”), as my date for Bryn Mawr’s Hepburn Award ceremony in Patti Smith’s honor. We had brought her a present, a talismanic piece of jewelry, a necklace made by our friend J. Rudy Lewis: a bronze wishbone on a leather cord, with one of our favorite things that we’ve heard Patti say before and after her concerts.

Patti noticed Frankie right away, and leaned down to accept our gift, for which she thanked us graciously, but also with alarm: “But what am I going to give you as a present?” she asked Frankie. She searched her jacket and pockets and smiled, drawing out her gift, a simple silk black ribbon of the sort she is famous for wearing. “I have had this in my pocket for five years, all during the time I was in Japan, and it is my good luck charm,” she said, pressing it into Frankie’s palm. “And this is my present to you.” Frankie whispered, “Thank you,” amazed and mute with honor.

After the ceremony, some faculty, including me, were to have our photos taken with Patti. When it was my turn, Frankie shyly told Patti the words that were inscribed on the necklace we had brought her: “It says, ‘I’d like to thank God I’m alive.’” Patti leaned down, hugged and kissed her, looked at Frankie in the eye and said: “And I am, honey. I am.” Patti then politely shooed the adults away and told Frankie that she would like to have her photograph taken with her.

And there they were, the most beautiful works of all: my blessed baby, Frankie, and the magical survivor and genius, Patti Smith. My soul was magnified.

Patti singing J. Carroll's "People Who Died" (But we're alive!)

Frankie, the Blessed

In the Gaps between Art, Love

Little emerald bird
Wants to fly away
If I cup my hand
Could I make him stay …

To say goodbye, Patti writes a poem.

Departing from Robert and her life in New York to move to Detroit with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, she composes a work for Robert’s portfolio and he assumes a place as “the blue star in the constellation of my personal cosmology.” The two don’t reconnect until several years later, when Fred Smith suggests Robert photograph Patti for the cover of their album, Dream of Life. Then, Patti’s personal cosmology is shaken by news of Robert’s AIDS diagnosis. Their reunion and the work they create – their artistic and personal connection still strong – becomes a fitting and fulfilling final act.

Dream of Life becomes more than just an album title, but a phrase that encapsulates everything about Patti and Robert’s final months together. Pregnant, Patti’s creative process is both biological and artistic, while Robert must fight the biological destruction imposing a certain end to his powers to exist as both an artist and a man. Both are acutely aware of this: “He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life,” Patti writes. Once again they strive to stay together as circumstances attempt to tear them apart.

Their original connection remains despite the years of separation. In the midst of a beautiful apartment surrounded by expensive furnishings, Robert delights in showing Patti the pieces of fabric, paper, string, and other small treasures he has collected. In response, she tells Robert “he had always been with me, part of who I am, just as he is at the moment.”

Despite her happiness at welcoming Robert’s physical presence back into her life, Patti is acutely aware of that physicality slipping away. Robert experiences the life and love of Patti’s visibly expanding family in the wake of the loss of his lover Sam Wagstaff and his own rapidly declining health. Facing the pain of death, he asks: “Patti, did art get us?” Patti, agonized, refuses to answer in the moment, but in hindsight, rightfully rejects the idea. It is through art that Patti and Robert’s relationship remains alive. Together they created – and inspired each other to create – poems, drawings, songs, photographs, a true legacy. When Robert regrets not having children with Patti, she correctly asserts “our work was our children.”

When Robert’s artistic strength finally is stolen by disease, Patti can no longer take comfort in the power of Robert-as-artist and instead must face his ever-apparent mortality: “I had nothing left to give him but love,” she realizes, lying in the dying artist’s arms. Their last conversation takes place in a hospital, where they pledge their love to each other before Robert is wheeled away for tests. Two months later, she attends his memorial service.

To say goodbye, Patti writes a poem.

… Little emerald soul
Little emerald eye
Little emerald bird
We must say good-bye

“American! Why do you not honor your poets?”

This accusatory line is tossed at Patti as she visits Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, uttered by a Parisian woman troubled by the tributes American tourists had left at the gravesite, tributes she saw as desecrations. As we’re about to honor Patti with a medal at a posh ceremony one week from tonight, now seems to be a good time to ponder the best way to honor our poets, poets like Patti. Thankfully, I think these pages provide us with some powerful clues.

The need to honor the poets that have inspired her is pervasive throughout Patti’s life and work, but especially evident in this section of the book. The episode at Jim Morrison’s grave comes at the end of a trip to France that was meant to provide research and inspiration for a book Patti intended to write about Arthur Rimbaud. Yet the words didn’t seem to come to her on this journey, leaving her frustrated and sad. Perhaps the poets are not best honored through such enshrinement.

Not to be deterred, Patti continues to seek connections with those who came before her.  She writes her own poetry while listening to The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, solely because it was produced by Brian Jones and was itself the music that he had found so inspirational for his own creativity. While her first single is remembered mostly for her original song “Piss Factory,” Patti reminds us here that it was actually the b-side, the a-side being a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” deliberately recorded to honor Hendrix, with “Piss Factory” added as an afterthought.

Alongside Patti, a number of other folks in this burgeoning scene are also seeking to honor the poets that inspired them, including some with uncanny connections to Patti’s same inspirations. She talks of seeing an early version of Television perform at CBGB’s, feeling a special connection with guitarist and vocalist Tom Verlaine.  Not only had he borrowed his last name from the same Paul Verlaine that Patti admired, the Verlaine who had such a tumultuous relationship with Arthur Rimbaud, but he had also grown up within 20 minutes of Patti, sharing similar geography as well as choice in idolized poets.

For the first time, Patti experiments with marijuana in an attempt to connect with Jamaica’s finest reggae poets, inspired by a viewing of the film The Harder They Come. Certainly unknown to Patti at the time, a group of London kids who would later form the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Slits, and the other foundational UK punk rock acts draw inspiration from this same film and these same reggae poets.

Lenny Kaye, Patti’s emerging musical collaborator during this period, had spent some of his time prior to meeting Patti assembling the influential garage rock compilation Nuggets, writing loving liner notes that were his own way of honoring his poets, notes that would contain one of the first usages of the phrase “punk rock.”

Ultimately, it’s the combination of Lenny’s love of garage rock with Patti’s love of poetry that seems to provide the key to the best way of honoring those who came before them. While improvising, Patti reads from her poem “Oath,” the same poem that she and Kaye had performed at their first reading together, beginning this time with her most famous lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”  Lenny begins to play the chords to one of his favorite garage rock classics, The Angry Young Them’s “Gloria,” one of the first songs to feature Van Morrison on vocals. This poetry, combined with this music, embodies the way forward: The best way to honor the poets is perhaps to desecrate them. Patti says that Jesus Christ was “a man worthy to be rebelling against, because he was rebellion itself.” She says this famous line was meant as a “declaration of existence,” and a “vow to take responsibility for [her] own actions.” The Angry Young Them’s song is best honored not by being played as a straight cover, but by being converted to the Angry Young Patti and Lenny’s song. The poets are best honored not by being enshrined in museums and treated gingerly and respectfully, but by making original poetry that is not afraid to boldly move beyond them. It’s no surprise that everyone tends to forget “Hey Joe” but remembers “Piss Factory.”

This transition is solidified as Patti’s band performs at a club when Bob Dylan walks in. Rather than feeling the need to stop playing or be nervous before the man she aspired to emulate, Patti instead describes the moment as feeling his power evidenced in her own worth and the worth of her band and what they were doing on stage. She may have aspired to emulate the poets she admired, but she did so ultimately not by cautious or timid imitation but rather by bold innovation.

And now it’s her turn to be honored. Though, to be fair, she and her fellow travelers have already been honored for quite some time. While reading this section of the book, I was listening to the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime album, a totem from some of the poets I most revere myself. One of the songs on this album, “History Lesson – Part II,” contains some striking lyrical references to many of the folks described in these pages. “Mr. Narrator,” singer D. Boon says, “This is Bob Dylan to me. My story could be his songs. I’m his soldier child.” D. Boon goes on to list some of the folks he aspired to be in his own performances, beginning with Blue Oyster Cult’s E. Bloom (in fact, D. Boon’s stage name was deliberately chosen to resemble E. Bloom’s), the same Blue Oyster Cult that nurtured Patti’s early songwriting.  He then immediately name-checks Richard Hell, the very Richard Hell that collaborated with Tom Verlaine in the early days of Television at CBGB’s, alongside the early iteration of Patti Smith’s band.  Joe Strummer and John Doe round out his list.

But it was another lyric from this song that had a more enduring legacy: “Our band could be your life.” This line would eventually be the title to Michael Azerrad’s excellent history of American indie rock in the 1980’s, a testament to the many fans who eventually turned into artists themselves. The message and legacy of the Minutemen was the same as the lesson that Patti, et. al., had learned a few years earlier: We best honor our poets by desecrating them and creating original poetry in their place.

Just a couple of years ago, I saw the Minutemen’s bassist Mike Watt end a show with a glorious cover of Television’s first single “Little Johnny Jewel,” followed by his shouting exhortation to the fans from the stage: “Write your own songs.  Form your own band.”

And so the cycle continues. As we prepare to honor Patti Smith with the medal ceremony next week, let us remember these lessons. Our poets are not honored by being enshrined in museums or praised from podiums. They are honored by what we choose to do ourselves in their wake. The only way we can honor their legacy is to leave a legacy of our own.

Patty Pays a Visit

Patty Hearst is an unlikely muse. And while it may seem a difficult task to top the larger-than-life aura of her grandfather, publishing icon William Randolph Hearst, Patty makes quite a compelling case.

Hearst makes a two-paragraph appearance in Just Kids, but her 1974 kidnapping, bank robbery, and embrace of the Symbionese Liberation Army – the group responsible for her kidnapping – served to inspire Patti’s first single, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” with lyrics altered by Smith’s impressions of the Hearst case.

… and Patty Hearst
You’re standing there in front of the Symbionese
Liberation army flag with your legs spread…
And now that you’re on the run what goes on in your mind
Your sisters they sit by the window
You know your mama doesn’t sit and cry and your daddy…
Patty, you know what your daddy said
Patty, he said, he said, he said
Well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child
Now here she is with a gun in her hand…

There is very little that connects Patti Smith and filmmaker John Waters – that they both appeared in a documentary celebrating the legacy of their mutual friend William S. Burroughs seems to be the sole link – save their joint muse, Patty Hearst.

Enthralled, as Smith was, by the spectacular crime and class circumstances surrounding the case, Waters devotedly attended every day of Hearst’s 1976 trial, despite his disappointment in the defendant’s fashion choices: “… always a letdown, looking so plain in her sensible shoes and private-school outfits… No wonder no one ever recognized her on her cross-country jaunts.”

Forgiving her for her fashion crimes, Waters persuaded Hearst to appear in a small role in his 1990 film Cry-Baby, and cast her in each of his movies since. In a tongue-in-cheek nod to her notoriety, Hearst played a jury member whose sensible (but out-of-season) white shoes enrage Kathleen Turner’s titular character in Serial Mom.

Despite – or because of – the wildly divergent artistic paths of Smith and Waters, I am fascinated (and more than a little amused) at the inspiration of Patty Hearst and its consequences. Each artist uses a different medium to explore the notoriety-soaked and utterly surreal stakes of her life and crimes with results reveling in the exploitation of themes neatly summarized within Smith’s lyrics:

But daddy, daddy, you’ll never know just what I was feelin’
But I’m sorry, I am no little pretty little rich girl
I am nobody’s million dollar baby, I am nobody’s patsy anymore

I’m nobody’s million dollar baby, I’m nobody’s patsy anymore
And I feel so free

The surreal – yet rewarding – paths continue for the artists and their muse: nobody’s patsy, or even Patty, Patricia Campbell Hearst Shaw was granted a full pardon by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office, Jan. 20, 2001; John Waters remains a successful director, author, and enthusiastic connoisseur of bad taste; and, of course, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Patti Smith will be awarded the Hepburn medal on Feb. 7 at Bryn Mawr College. The surreal life ain’t so bad.

Here She Comes

I don’t remember the first time I listened to Horses and I’m not even sure if I liked it that first time; I probably didn’t understand it. However, it still felt like something important. It’s an album I’m still figuring out, an album I’m still in the process of discovering; I go back to it often and I always like it more. “Gloria” is my favorite song and “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” is like a punch in the stomach every time.

Much of the book feels like it’s building towards Horses, and I hear new things after reading it. I feel her power and her creative instinct to merge poetry with the violent sound of rock n’ roll. I picture her in Electric Lady Studios. I hear Robert Mapplethorpe saying, “Patti.” The album’s cover is just as iconic as the music, and my favorite moment of “Separate Ways Together,” maybe even the whole book, is when Smith describes her morning before the photo is taken.

“I rolled out of bed and noticed it was late. I raced through my morning ritual, going around to the Moroccan bakery, grabbing a crusty roll, a sprig of fresh mint, and some anchovies. I came back and boiled water, stuff the pot with mint. I poured olive oil in the open roll, rinsed the anchovies, and laid them inside, sprinkling in some cayenne pepper. I poured a glass of tea and thought better of wearing my shirt, knowing I’d get olive oil on the front of it.”

I love how Smith chooses to slow down the narrative right before such a climatic moment, as if to drain all the excitement out of it; her description of that day is quiet and unassuming, and I was happy to sit with her and dwell in that morning. Even though the photo is probably the most famous of her (I could, again, use the word iconic), the day is described as simple, just like any other. “We never talked about what we would do, or what it would look like,” she says. “He would shoot it. I would be shot.” The photo also brings the story back to Patti and Robert, “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.” The reader is reminded of the importance of their relationship here; of course Robert would take the photo, who else could capture her so truthfully?

Separate Ways Together: When Patti Smith Becomes Patti Smith

Early on in “Separate Ways Together,” a director at what would become the famous downtown avant garde theater La Mama, in whose germinal years Smith had performed a few times as an actor, threw up his hands in irritation. He was sure he’d typecast Smith as a lesbian junkie. In spite of all leading appearances, however, she assured him that she was most certainly not, and in rehearsals, Smith just couldn’t muster up the requisite lust, or even a passable facsimile of it, during a same-sex love scene. When he learned that Smith was neither-nor, he laughed incredulously. And he then wondered aloud: So, if Smith didn’t shoot up, or have sex with women, then just what was it that she did do?

It was a little mean of me, but I laughed out loud at the guy’s exasperation. Honestly, I’d been wondering them same thing, too. I’m not talking about her sex life or drug use; I don’t have an interest in the prurient contours of people’s lives. I had, however, been seriously ruminating on just what the bleep she had been doing up until this point.

She’s done a great deal, certainly, most of it experimenting with buddies; going to lots of parties (albeit often shyly, as Robert’s awkward arm candy); talking about art; creating some art; writing some poetry. In other words, she’d been doing a lot of hanging out. But is hanging out the same thing as doing something?

For Mapplethorpe, yes. It led him directly to what he wanted to become. As we learn throughout Smith’s tracing the arc of the friendship, Mapplethorpe was, as he invariably was, Smith’s foil: the evil or good twin of the duo’s dual natures. Mapplethorpe, though many times despaired that he would never arrive at it, had, in fact, nailed his goal early on. He went about cutting away at it, like an Inuit statue hiding in a stone waiting for the artist to carve it out, until he unearthed the precise style he had been working to pry out of his mind’s eye and into galleries. Simultaneously, he worked to achieve his twin goal—fame—by developing a circle of powerful fans and benefactors. Hanging out was helping him achieve his goals.

Smith, however, had no other goal than to become an artist, though she had no real notion of what kind of artist she would like to be, or, moreover, be any good at. After the failed play, she knew she wasn’t an actor. She’d been too shy to read her poems in front of an audience, in spite of Mapplethorpe’s urging. She worked drawings, played with clothes. Smoked a little weed. Even in this section, she persists in hanging out, taking a solo pilgrimage trip to Paris to visit the various historic sites of her favorite poets.

But then, we see her—finally free of Mapplethorpe’s constant presence—
find out exactly what kind of artist she wants to be: her own. It is in this section that we see all the components of Smith’s hang-outs gel into creating an utterly original, strange, ferociously intellectual, and gritty form of performance art. To answer the director’s question—what did she actually do?—she had been the unwitting Inuit sculptor of her own image and mind.

So while they walked hand in hand—and hung out a lot—we finally see what Mapplethorpe will ultimately become known for: a provocative photographer and social butterfly. Patti Smith, however, will become known for something far more complicated and original: Patti Smith.

“If you miss a beat, you create another”

Before reading this memoir, I always knew that Patti Smith spent a lot of time kicking around New York’s art and music scene before recording her debut album. I knew she’d written rock criticism for Creem and Rolling Stone. I knew she was connected to Sandy Pearlman and contributed songs to Blue Oyster Cult. I knew she’d published poetry. I knew she happened upon becoming a rock star by reading poetry while Lenny Kaye played guitar.  But reading about how it all happened has been revelatory, surprising, and ultimately inspirational.

I had no idea of the extent of the different activities Patti was engaged in during this period. In addition to the above, she also acted in plays at the Factory. She posed as a model for Robert’s photographs and others, even doing runway fashion modeling at one point. Before Blue Oyster Cult, she’d also written songs with Bobby Neuwirth and others. Together with playwright Sam Shepard, she improvised a play into existence out of sheer nothingness.

It was during this last endeavor that Patti says she found her key to improvisation, a key she has “accessed [her] whole life.” In the act of spontaneously creating this play together, Patti and Sam develop characters that invent their own poetic language. In a scene where they need to argue, Patti panics that she will be unable to improvise the argumentative poetry correctly. Sam tells her that it’s impossible to make a mistake when improvising. Patti says she’s worried about messing up the rhythm. Sam replies, matter-of-factly. “It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”

For me, that really does seem to sum up this period in Patti’s life. On one level, she just seems to be trying things out, the proverbial throwing of things up against a wall to see what sticks. Yet it’s this very experimentation that yields such productive fruit for her. A casual comment about how she looks like Joan Baez causes her to cut her hair to look like Keith Richards in an effort to “say goodbye to the folk era.” This immediately results in opportunities for acting and songwriting.

In his classic book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige discusses how youth act as bricoleurs to spontaneously and experimentally construct an (accidentally) coherent cosmology of meaning out of the various clothes and hairstyles and pop cultural commodities that they have available. Their stylistic choices reflect a refusal to accept, and a revolt against, culturally dominant notions of meaning, especially related to race, class, gender, and sexuality. Above all, they express a right of youth to make their own culture out of the detritus that’s handed to them, rather than passively accepting the culture others wish to impose upon them. Patti’s deliberate attention to her hair and Robert’s carefully constructed outfits strike me as being engaged in exactly this sort of bricolage. Indeed, it is not surprising that her Keith Richards haircut signified that “I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.” Similary, Robert’s art works in this period are beginning to take on more and more of a stance that challenges notions of masculinity and gay sexuality, both from the mainstream and from the various subcultures that were emerging.

For Patti, I can’t help but notice a seeming paradox in her personality as she experiments. On the one hand, she reads in these pages as a shy, unassuming, humble, somewhat naïve, almost chaste person. She still seems to dread being dragged by Robert through the inner circles of the art world he so wanted to enter, taking little pleasure in the socializing and performance of it all. She does not use drugs (at least on purpose, and detests the hallucinations she experiences when dosed unknowingly), despite their ubiquity among her friends. She claims to not understand the plays she performs in, nor her roles in them. She seems content to stay in the background most of the time, awkwardly uncomfortable when too much attention is thrust upon her.

This personality is somewhat difficult to reconcile with her eventual public persona, one of sheer arrogance and direct confrontation. What else can you call someone who shows up at her first poetry reading in black snakeskin boots, with Lenny Kaye to accompany her on electric guitar, spouting lines like “Christ died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” This is the Patti Smith music fans are familiar with, most certainly (especially as a slightly different version of that very line opens her debut album). But it’s a somewhat jarring contrast from the personality that seems to lay behind it in these pages. She mentions that even Robert is worried that her work is too confrontational.

Yet in the context of the experimentation and bricolage, it’s a paradox that makes sense. Patti had earlier said that she found the poetry readings she’d attended to be boring, and she promised to herself that if she ever did read publicly, she wouldn’t be boring. This desire to make a mark, this determination to make her own culture, was more powerful than her perhaps personal reluctance to grab the spotlight.

But even here in this triumphant moment, her humility wins the day.  My jaw dropped as I read about how she rejected the initial recording contracts and offers of fame that came her way in the wake of this performance.  She could not accept them because she said they came too easily.  Nothing came easily for Robert, and nothing came easily for anyone that she admired.  So she wouldn’t let anything come easily for herself either.

(At this point, I’m tempted to take on the persona of the grumpy old curmudgeon who complains about the “kids of today” who seem to latch onto their quick success as if it’s their birthright, without actually making any of their own real culture that matters first.  I’m tempted, but I don’t want to be that guy.)

In a keynote address at last year’s South by Southwest music festival, Bruce Springsteen closed his remarks by giving advice to young artists.  “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he said, “and take yourself as seriously as death itself.  Don’t worry.  Worry your ass off.  Have ironclad confidence.  But doubt.  It keeps you awake and alert.  Believe you are the baddest ass in town.  And…you SUCK.”

It is this paradoxical mixture of arrogance and humility, of ambition and diffidence, that I read into Patti’s personality at this point in her life.  It’s what undergirds her experimentation and ensures it is so much more than just throwing things at a wall to see what sticks.  And it seems to be the reason she survives the continuing stream of deaths that seem to surround her.  This section of the book ends with her and Robert deciding to go their separate ways on one level.  But she says they kept their vow to stay together until they were able to stand on their own.  May we all stand as confidently, and as awkwardly.  If we miss a beat, we’ll create another.


Her Generation: Patti Smith’s Experience of the Feminine Mystique

Patti Smith is one of a handful of enigmatic pop icons about which many—even dudes who scour every last liner note—presume much but discover how little they knew after their hero broadcasts some self-revelatory incident. (Bob Dylan is an obvious other, as his own autobiography and the surrealistic, imagined biopic, I’m Not There, denoted so astonishingly). For my money, the second part of Hotel Chelsea chapter in Just Kids dispels so many Smithian presumptions, I finished it wondering: Where is she?

Pre-read, when I thought of Patti Smith, these were the tropes that came to mind: gender-bending pop poet; ground breaking punk performer; flat out independent woman. For me, it was that last one that was always boldly underlined, probably because I thought it was so cool that she was so defiantly not known as a sex symbol in that era of centerfolds. Looking at any timeline of photographs or album covers of her is evidence enough. Androgynous? Yes. Alluring—for sure. Sexpot? No way. She never went for anything obviously girly: not interested in glittery maquillage (the cosmetic of choice for Factory stars and wannabe’s), nor in emulating downtown contemporaries such as Blondie’s Debbie Harry—too cotton candy-ish lip pouting.

Yet, fascinatingly, in this section of “Hotel Chelsea” Smith’s catalogues with stripping candor the many men on whom she was dependent—and who dumped her. There was Jim Carroll, early punk rocker and author of The Basketball Diaries; Smith cared deeply for him, even through his co-hustling with Robert, and then he leaves her. There was the then-married playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she has a protracted, intimate affair and co-creates a play; he dumps her. There was Allen Lanier of the heavy metal band Blue Oyster Cult; she even moves in with him, and then he dumps her. At one point, Smith writes that Robert, Allen, and Sam get together and “hashed it out” to determine how, between the three of them, they were going to support her financially.

Then, we see Smith getting dragged around by her social-climbing ersatz husband, Robert, to fancy parties with Met curators and Diane Von Furstenberg—expected to summon social graces to advance his career. Then we see Smith “there, there, dear”-ing Janis Joplin, as the latter sobs that men never go for her. Then, there she is again, the object of the ultimate male gaze in Robert’s photographs.

Where the heck did that “flat out independent woman” idea come from? It struck me, as I was trolling around YouTube and stumbled on her 1979 performance of The Who’s “My Generation,” that though Smith would, of course, ultimately—and, per her memoir’s trajectory, soon—come wholly into her own, that in judging her prematurely in these pages, I had made the ultimate amateur’s mistake: I’d forgotten that, though she’s now plastered in iconography, she was, is, not a paragon but a person of her time. And that was a time in which even the most flat out of independent women were still male-dependent and, to a large extent, arm candy.

In watching that performance, and Smith’s punky take on the pop song of its time, I thought: There she is. Exactly where she ought have been—sandwiched between two male guitarists, but holding her own as the main attraction—at just that moment.