Jesus died for somebody's book (but not hers)

November 30, 2010

Love-her or hate-her punk godmother Patti Smith, who will make a sold-out appearance this evening at Columbia College as part of its "Conversations in the Arts" series, recently won the National Book award for Just Kids, a memoir about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe--though this critic, for one, didnt think the book was all that. Here is my review, written early this year, shortly after its publication.

Like many of the wildly ambitious young romantics flooding the streets of Manhattan in the mid-’60s, Patricia Lee Smith, born in Chicago but raised in Deptford Township, N.J., and Bob Mapplethorpe, of Floral Park, Queens, both desperately sought acceptance in the glamorous world that had lured them from their working-class roots.

The two androgynous hippies and aspiring artists were biding their time as clerks for a chain of book stores during the second meeting that cemented their bond, as Smith recounts in her anticipated new memoir about their friendship, Just Kids.

“Shortly after I started working there, the boy I had briefly met in Brooklyn came into the store,” she writes. “He looked quite different in his white shirt and tie, like a Catholic schoolboy. He explained that he worked at Brentano’s downtown branch and had a credit slip he wanted to use. He spent a long time looking at everything, the beads, the small figurines, the turquoise rings.

“Finally he said, ‘I want this.’ It was the Persian necklace. ‘Oh, it’s my favorite too,’ I answered. ‘It reminds me of a scapula.’ ‘Are you a Catholic?’ he asked me. ‘No, I just like Catholic things ….’ When I wrapped it and handed it to him, I said impulsively, ‘Don’t give it to any girl but me.’ I was immediately embarrassed, but he just smiled and said, ‘I won’t.’”

Just Kids is full of similarly portentous vignettes, many foreshadowing the greatness to come for both, and the rest evoking the “mystical” ways in which they helped to shape each other’s destinies. (When Mapplethorpe tells Smith his name is Bob, she replies, “Somehow you don’t seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?”) Yet despite the sometimes lyrical flow of the prose, it all gets heavy-handed and downright silly after a while, and not only because we know the ending.

Forty-three years after that meeting, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith both hold well-deserved spots in the pantheons of their respective fields. Mapplethorpe, who died of complications from AIDS at age 42 in 1989, is a photographer whose style was so distinctive that his work is instantly recognizable, whether the subject is a lily, a female bodybuilder or any of the (very) controversial sexual practices that he portrayed. Smith, now 63, is the revered punk godmother whose combination of poetry and rock ’n’ roll set a ferocious standard for anyone else to follow when attempting that merger.

But as their most astute biographers and fellow travelers have observed, these artists’ greatest creations may have been the carefully guarded and consistently polished personas that they invented for themselves—the ones we see when contemplating, say, the famous Mapplethorpe self-portrait with devil’s horns, or the shot he took of Smith for the cover of her 1975 debut album, “Horses.” As the poet Rene Ricard wrote in Art in America when reviewing a joint exhibition in 1978 of Mapplethorpe’s photos and Smith’s drawings, “Their friendship is their masterpiece… Verlaine, Rimbaud, Smith, Mapplethorpe: We are dealing here with a network of homage and swapped destinies.”

Indeed we are, though the key difference is that Verlaine and Rimbaud never mythologized their time together, while Smith has long been obsessive about controlling her public persona and erasing any hint that her success is due to anything besides divine inspiration. She has blocked or frustrated most attempts to tell her own story, and this book arrives as part of a new public relations campaign that also includes the pretty but superficial documentary, “Patti Smith: Dream of Life.” It has its roots in Smith’s much-publicized anger over Patricia Morrisroe’s 1995 book, Mapplethorpe: A Biography. “I didn’t recognize him from what Patricia had to say,” Smith told The New Yorker at the time, and she set out to present her own version, which took more than a decade and two different publishers to finally realize.

Extensively researched and unflinchingly honest while far from being a hatchet job—Morrisroe was chosen by the photographer to document his life’s tale—Mapplethorpe: A Biography ultimately stands as the more illuminating and engaging book. Meanwhile, Smith has created a sort of meandering, sappy and sometimes florid fable woefully short on hard facts or revealing insights into either the nature of creativity or the particulars of the relationship. By the time she cheerfully breezes by the then sexually confused, eventually proudly homosexual Mapplethorpe “accidentally” giving her the clap, you want to scream, “Come on, now, there had to be more to it than you’re saying!”

In the end, anyone familiar with either or both of these artists may conclude that Smith would have served her friend better by writing another song or poem—or that there are more revealing truths in the photos adorning these pages than there are in the prose.

JUST KIDS

By Patti Smith

Ecco, 304 pages, $27