Each morning, after she records some “dream residue” in a notebook, Patti Smith walks from her brownstone on the edge of Soho to a coffee shop on Bedford Street, where she orders one cup of coffee and another of hot water, diluting the first with the second as she goes. She misplaced her glasses so she can’t do much in the way of work today—Smith toggles among music, prose, and photography, devoting equal time to each—but yesterday she was diligent, scribbling an elegy to Edgar Allan Poe and shooting some surreal photos in bed of a plaster replica of William Blake’s head, tucking his chin in her sheets. “A day doesn’t go by where I don’t create something,” says Smith. “Sometimes it’s a rough day and I’m about to go to sleep at eleven o’clock, but I’ll get my Polaroid and take pictures of a series of things. Then I go to bed really happy because I have something to look at, something I did.”
At 63, in a striped boater shirt and black combat boots, with her graying hair mostly stuffed under a black watch cap (the rest is massed on her shoulders, with tiny braids embedded here and there), Smith looks like the same punk-rocker who chanted that Jesus was “the great faggot in history” and kicked drinks onto music executives at one of her shows. As a female rock-and-roll star, she was predated only by the more feminine Grace Slick and blues-oriented Janis Joplin—an anti-feminist feminist icon who dressed androgynously, used dirty slang like William Burroughs, and argued that words like Ms. were “really bullshit,” as she said in 1976. “Vowels are the most illuminated letters in the alphabet, and these assholes take the only fucking vowel out of the word miss. It sounds like a sick bumblebee, it sounds frigid.” She’s willing to repent for some of the dicier declarations now. “If I’ve learned one thing in life,” she says, in a low, slow monotone, a little bit dazed, “it’s not to be so judgmental of other people.”
These days, Smith is interested in the earlier part of her life, the years spent aching for greatness in New York until she became famous with the release of Horses in 1975. She arrived from South Jersey nearly a decade earlier with $32 and a copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations in her plaid suitcase, sleeping on subways and in parks until she met the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, a Floral Park altar boy and Pratt student who became her first boyfriend. “I never expected that this modest shepherd-boy fella would one day wear gold lamé with a codpiece,” says Smith, in her unrepentantly thick Jersey accent. “But who would think a Holden Caulfield of a girl would end up fronting a rock-and-roll band?” Next week, Ecco will publish Just Kids, a shockingly beautiful book about their relationship, in which the roles evolved like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s, or even the siblings of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. It’s a classic, a romance about becoming an artist in the city, written in a spare, simple style of boyhood memoirs like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time.
Smith worked in part from a stack of teenage journals with her astrological sign on the front. “I have a good memory once it’s triggered, so with my notebooks, I could sit back and see things like a little movie,” she says. The process still took ten years and two publishers. She missed a significant deadline, the twentieth anniversary of Mapplethorpe’s death from complications related to AIDS. “It almost makes me cry, thinking about missing that date,” she says. “I was in Tennessee touring with my band, and I had to go in the wheat fields to call my editor with a cell phone. I kept saying to myself, ‘You have to tell him it’s not done. C’mon, be a man, be a man.’ ”
It’s surprising to hear that Smith, the paragon of cool, became so emotional, but Mapplethorpe nicknamed her Soakie because tears come so easily, and after I compliment her on the book, she begins to sob. “I’m so glad,” she says. “The galleys had imperfections, so I haven’t passed it around to my friends. I didn’t even give it to Sam Shepard, and he plays a nice part.” She warms both hands on one of the cups. “It’s so easy to take one aspect of Robert’s life and magnify that,” she says. “I don’t even know the breadth of his nocturnal life in the eighties. So I’m not only glad for me. I’m glad for Robert.”
Smith came on to Mapplethorpe first, when he appeared at Brentano’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue, where she had managed to become a clerk even though she was still sleeping on the street. He bought an ethnic necklace that she coveted: two panels of enamel on silk thread. “Don’t give it to any girl but me,” she declared. He appeared next in Tompkins Square Park, while she was on an unpleasant date with a science-fiction writer likely seeking to take advantage of her destitution, and took her out in the East Village for an egg cream. Mapplethorpe was tripping on acid at the time, but told Patricia Morrisroe, who wrote a biography of him in 1995, that Smith seemed stranger. “She was on the edge of being psychotic in a schizophrenic way,” said Mapplethorpe. “She told me stories, and I didn’t know if they were fiction or nonfiction. If she hadn’t discovered art, she would have wound up in a mental institution. But she had a lot of magic in her.”