Because the Night Belongs to Her
By MAUREEN DOWD
I met Patti Smith briefly at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” cycle last fall.
What good would a MODO column be w/o the obligatory fashion review?She was wearing a black sequined jacket, white ruffly shirt and black pants, a glam version of the “gothic crow,” as Salvador Dali once described her. Her salt-and-chocolate mane was hanging in an untamed pony tail. She seemed shy and modest but fun and self-possessed, ever the cool chick.
Mo could have also written this: The holes in my popular cultural knowledge are gaping. I knew nothing of Patti Smith.In an era when many women resist aging, preferring to frantically pursue scary, puffy replicas of their 25-year-old selves, and at a time when women still struggle to balance sexuality and power, the 63-year-old Smith radiated magic.
My cultural lacunae included the iconic New York punk rock singer, poet and artist who dropped out for a decade to raise two kids with guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in Detroit. I had never seen her perform and didn’t know she was a jumble of quirky contradictions, passionate about Arthur Rimbaud and “Law & Order: SVU,” William Blake and Jimi Hendrix, grand opera and cheap talismans, listening to Glenn Gould and writing detective novels.
Because, apparently, the thought that a punk rocker who hung with a guy who took nude photos of men winning a National Book Award (not a mere Pulitzer, which DoMo has done) never occurred to this woman of ... snobbery.
Beyond the jangly ruckuses about explicit photos of naked men, I didn’t know much about Robert Mapplethorpe either.
So I was startled to pick up Smith’s memoirs, which won a National Book Award last month, and delve into a spellbinding love story.
Just who, now, has been "swallowed by Facebook, flat screens, texts, tweets and Starbucks?" Are there not some people who will "[talk] all night and [listen] to jukeboxes and LPs and read actual books and [drink black] coffee?" I suggest that DoMo and her crowd have lost the romanticism of the past in an all-encompassing embrace of the present popular icons.
For anyone who has had a relationship where the puzzle pieces seem perfect but don’t fit — so, all of us — “Just Kids” is achingly beautiful. It’s “La Bohème” at the Chelsea Hotel; a mix, she writes, of “Funny Face” and “Faust,” two hungry artists figuring out whom to love, how to make art and when to part.
It unfolds in that romantic time before we were swallowed by Facebook, flat screens, texts, tweets and Starbucks; when people still talked all night and listened to jukeboxes and LPs and read actual books and drank black coffee.
Smith describes the wondrous odyssey of taking the bus from South Jersey and meeting a curly-haired soul mate who wanted to help her soar, even as the pair painfully grappled over the years with Mapplethorpe’s sexuality and his work’s brutality.
“Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art,” Smith writes about the former altar boy from Floral Park, Queens, who was bedeviled by Catholic concepts of good and evil. “Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism.”
When he began exploring his own desires in San Francisco, she said it was an education for her too.
“I had thought a man turned homosexual when there was not the right woman to save him, a misconception I had developed from the tragic union of Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine,” she writes, adding that she mistakenly considered homosexuality “a poetic curse” that “irrevocably meshed with affectation and flamboyance.”
As they redefined their love, she writes, “I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.”When the penniless Smith first gets to New York she sleeps in Central Park and graveyards. Once she meets Robert, they shoplift occasionally and scrape by. They are too poor to go to museums together; one goes in and describes it afterward to the other waiting outside. They share Coney Island hot dogs. Robert works as a hustler for money.
She encourages the reluctant Mapplethorpe to take photographs; he shoots the covers for her poetry book and mythic first album, “Horses.” He teases her when she becomes famous faster.
Smith vividly recalls a psychedelic bohemia in downtown New York in the volcanic late ’60s and ’70s when you could feel “a sense of hastening.”
She transports you back to the Coney Island freak shows and the Chelsea Hotel, “a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone,” as she calls the refuge for artists from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan. Glittery cameos include former lover Sam Shepard, Gregory Corso, Salvador Dali, Viva, William Burroughs, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and her idol, Hendrix.
The more commercial and society-minded Robert dreamed of breaking into Warhol’s circle, but Patti was suspicious. “I hated the soup and felt little for the can,” she writes. “I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.”
When Robert was ravaged by AIDS, a distraught Patti drove and flew back and forth from Detroit to New York to hold and soothe him.
She wrote him a letter, recalling that he once said that art was like “holding hands with God.” Urging him to grip that hand hard, she concluded: “Of all your work, you are still your most beautiful.”
The March morning in 1989 that he died, at 42, she woke up to hear an opera playing on an arts channel on a TV that had been left on. It was Tosca declaring her passion for the painter Cavaradossi, singing “I have lived for love, I have lived for Art.” It was her goodbye.