Remembrances of the Punk Prose Poetess

Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath

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.”

Smith and Mapplethorpe on their West 23rd Street fire escape, 1971.Photo: Gerard Malanga

Smith was a fan and iconographer, fixated on the gestures of her favorite artists—she’d steal painting supplies because she heard Lee Krasner did it for Jackson Pollock, or try to hail a cab just like Dylan in Dont Look Back. “My goals were lofty,” she says. “I wanted to be a painter, or to write Pinocchio or Alice in Wonderland, the kind of book I read a hundred times when I was a kid. I wanted to be in the canon, because to me the rest was litter or jerking off.” She viewed Mapplethorpe as someone who was already there, with his collages and gruesome religious art, which grew to include leathermen and explicit S&M imagery like a mutilated penis; Smith would later use pot to get herself into a creative space, or otherwise masturbate, and begin to write. “The thing is real artists are hard to come by, just like real poets,” she says now. “Everyone has a creative impulse, and has the right to create, and should. That’s what Blake believed, that everyone could animate God. It’s very illustrative in our time, when all artists are sort of in trouble, and why is that? Because the people are making their own art, taking their own photographs, making their own songs, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. But a pure artist is a different animal. Robert was a pure artist.”

To be around the greats—to go where Thomas Wolfe and Bob Dylan created, and Dylan Thomas and Edie Sedgwick would spiral downward—there was only one place: the Chelsea Hotel. Smith heard you could get a room there in exchange for art. In 1969, she moved in with Mapplethorpe. “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in The Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe,” she writes. “Everyone had something to offer and nobody seemed to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.” She liked to sit in the lobby smoking Kools and reading detective novels, waiting for Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg to cross through—Ginsberg made a pass at her, thinking she was a man—and dashed out to hail cabs for Burroughs on his ascent from El Quixote. “William and I had the scarlet-fever club together,” says Smith, who experienced hallucinations during childhood diseases, many of which Mapplethorpe encouraged her to explore artistically. “William believed fever permanently opened a certain portal.”

“My goals were lofty. I wanted to be a painter, or to write Pinocchio or Alice inWonderland, the kind of book I read a hundred times when I was a kid.”

Art didn’t make the rent, so Smith kept clerking and shoplifting, and Mapplethorpe began to hustle on the East Side near Bloomingdale’s. (He continued to have sex with Smith, and told his parents that they had been married in a strawberry field in California.) Andy Warhol had already been shot by Valerie Solanas, so he wasn’t around much—when he met the pair later, he initially dismissed them as “dirty” and “horrible”—but they went to the Factory, where Smith’s hair was decreed to be lame and “very Joan Baez.” That night, she chopped up her hair like Keith Richards. A look turned out to be all she needed. This was a magical time in New York, when ambitious kids could go to Max’s Kansas City one night and come out a rock star the next. Dylan’s alter-ego, Bobby Neuwirth, began to take Smith out, and encouraged her to write balladic poems in the tradition of Hank Williams. “Next time I see you, I want a song out of you,” he declared. He introduced Smith to Joplin, who called her The Poet, and she was in the room in the Chelsea when Kris Kristofferson played “Me and Bobbie McGee” for Joplin in her easy chair. “I was there for those moments,” writes Smith, “but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.”

Then Mapplethorpe began to hang out with a male model from London who took him shopping in a white Corvair. Smith would watch him nervously as he prepared to go out. “He chose everything carefully. The colored handkerchief he would fold and tuck in his back pocket. His bracelet. His vest. And the long, slow method of combing his hair. He knew that I liked his hair a bit wild, and I knew he was not taming his curls for me.” Mapplethorpe didn’t tell Smith that he was gay, waiting for Loulou de la Falaise, the muse of Yves Saint Laurent, to raise the issue on the dance floor. He wept when he confessed. Smith pledged to keep him close. “I loved Robert,” she says, her eyes tearing up again. “When we were together, he didn’t tell me about his exploits, and I didn’t talk to him about other people. When we were together, we were with each other.”

Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath

After they separated as lovers—though they would still make a movie where Mapplethorpe changed Smith’s menstrual napkin—Smith began to date Jim Carroll, watching as he shot heroin into his freckled hand, “like the darker side of Huckleberry Finn,” and started an affair with Shepard, with whom she would write the play Cowboy Mouth. She gathered a large following for her poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church, alongside her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye, finding the “reactions so intense that I actually wanted to back off,” she says. “People came at me with all sorts of offers, wanting to make me into a hard-core Cher. I had no desire for any amount of money to be reformed for someone’s vision, because in the end that’s what you got: your clay in someone else’s hands.” After Richard Hell introduced her to CBGB—where she played a legendary two-month residency with his band Television in 1975—she married poetry to the punk movement, then the callow province of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. “Go Rimbaud” and “Do the Watusi” weren’t lines that came to their minds, nor rebel yells like “Yum yum the stars are out. I’ll never forget you how you smelled that night. Like Cheddar cheese melting under fluorescent light. Like a day old rainbow fish. What a dish. Gotta lick my lips. Gotta dream I daydream. Thorazine brain cloud. Rain rain comes coming down.”

Although Smith became famous first, she and Mapplethorpe continued to guard each other’s talent. “Robert believed in me as much as he believed in himself, and it was incredible how much he believed in himself,” says Smith. “He would not rest until he helped me dive down, down, down, and access my confident part. And I did access it, finally. It came out in a funny way, as a performer. But because he gave it to me so early in life, I don’t have to be given it again and again—I just have it. I might have to work to find it when my world gets shook. But I can always find it.”

After coffee, Smith walks a few blocks to her studio in an age-encrusted townhouse, where the floorboards creak under her weight. Her children, Jesse Paris, a 22-year-old composer, and Jackson, a 27-year-old musician married to Meg White of the White Stripes, were brought up in Detroit with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist of the legendary band MC5. He died of heart failure in 1994, and she chose to move back to New York afterward. “For my book, I spent a year thinking about the one sentence that I used to describe my husband,” she says. “A very simple sentence: ‘He was a king among men, and men knew him.’ That’s as accurate as I could portray Fred.”

In New York, Smith’s lawyer helped enroll her kids in the Little Red School House, and Michael Stipe, who decided to become a musician when he heard Horses, found them a brownstone. “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell that many records, but everyone who bought one started a band, and that’s times 100 for Patti,” says Stipe now. Ann Demeulemeester supplied a wardrobe. Bob Dylan asked her to tour with him. “I was a little down-and-out financially, to be honest,” says Smith. “It was hard to come back here.” None of Smith’s records are gold in the U.S., and her most consistent checks come from royalties on her only radio hit, “Because the Night” (Bruce Springsteen owns the publishing on the song). “I made a lot of decisions that affected my success, I know that,” says Smith. “I wouldn’t go on Dick Clark because I’d be required to lip-synch. I showed armpit hair on the cover of my Easter album, and it was so disturbing to people, which I still don’t understand, so they wouldn’t rack it in the South. Then other people wouldn’t rack it because I had a song called ‘Rock N Roll Nigger.’ ” Punks said the Springsteen song proved she was a sellout. “I liked hearing myself on the radio,” she says, with a shrug. “To me, those people didn’t understand punk rock at all. Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”

Smith still loves the city but thinks about moving in a few years—could be Ireland or Rhode Island, anywhere she can have a fisherman’s cottage by the sea. “I think things changed after 9/11, when the two most powerful teeth were knocked out of the mouth of the skyline,” she says. “The mayor felt this impetus to rebuild New York bigger and better than ever. Rebuilding the stadiums, ripping down the MoMA, a holy museum, to make it a huge corporative space—well, that’s not what New York is about. It’s about the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, come if you have a dream. This city is not supposed to be the biggest, the baddest, the most expensive, the hippest. Now the kids go to Brooklyn.” She snorts a little. “What about Newark, yeah, maybe that’s it.”

The studio is arranged neatly, with paintbrushes and thumbtacks in little bins. The phone rings a lot, and she barks on it sometimes, explaining to a consigliere that she won’t agree to appear in a performance without seeing the excerpts first: “Ya know what? I’m doing them a favor.” A photograph of Susan Sontag’s flower-strewn grave sits on her mantle, along with a dark-green icon that belonged to Carroll. She considers him to be her generation’s best poet. “I was so sad when Jim died this year,” she says. “He was so sturdy as a boy.”

In here, among her things, it’s clear that she works best in a hothouse of those who have influenced her. The portal Burroughs spoke about is open for such channeling, she thinks. On tour, when she has days off, she usually visits graves: Chekhov and Bulgakov in Russia, or Samuel Beckett, Baudelaire, and Brancusi in Paris’s Montparnasse cemetery. “It’s infinitely more interesting for me to have all these people hang around me,” she says. “I’m never bored. I can access them if I’m trying to figure something out, just like I can access my family, or Robert.” There’s another reason, too: “We’ve always had a little maxim, in our band, that the guardians of history are soon rewarded with history itself,” says Kaye.

Smith crosses the studio to sit at a small writing table, as her young Italian tour manager brings over mint tea in her grandmother’s fleur-de-lis pot. “Very nice, Stefano, very nice,” she chants under her breath. Soon, she drifts over to a chest filled with objects: a stone from the river where Virginia Woolf took her plunge, her father’s cup, a small case with Arthur Rimbaud’s calling card, Mapplethorpe’s black velvet slippers. “Some of these things are only worth something to me,” she says, then opens a dark marble box. She lifts the necklace that Mapplethorpe bought at Brentano’s, pendants on a black and silver string. “This is one of my most valuable possessions,” she says. “I’ve lost many things, but managed to keep this forever.”

Then she sits back at her table, resting her hands on the top. “You know, when I was young, I wanted to do something great, and because I still don’t believe that I have quite done that, I’m still pushing on,” says Smith. “I want to write my Alice in Wonderland. I feel I have it in me to do this one thing. I don’t know what it will be.”

Remembrances of the Punk Prose Poetess