Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
The subject of Smith's evocative and quite wonderful memoir (which won the National Book Prize) is her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their development as artists.
There is much about the wild and gritty life in Manhattan during the last sixties and early seventies that makes present-day Manhattan look like a bland, glitzy shopping mall. Rock and roll, poetry (it's Patty Smith, so there is much Rimaud scattered throughout), drugs, sex, and everyone from Warhol to Jim Morrison to Jimi Hendix to Janis Joplin to Salvatore Dali to Sam Shephard to William Burroughs wanders through the pages, in various stages of poverty and inebriation.
I'm not sure I believe everything Smith tells us. For instance, the idea she learned of Mapplethorpe's death at the very moment the Tosca aria "Vissi d'arte," I have lived for love, I have lived for Art, plays on early morning public radio, is a tad hard to swallow. But who cares; if it didn't happen that way, it ought to have. And was she really the first person to call Janis Joplin "Pearl?"
There is much humour here, and astute observations about place and period. Her descriptions of living on the streets when she first arrived in NYC from New Jersey are frightening and one scene, in which she and a very ill Mapplethorpe find temporary refuge in a end-of-the-line flop house filled with junkie drag queens in various stages of dying, is harrowing, but never voyeuristic or self-pitying
Her portrait of the famous "doll’s house in the Twilight Zone”: the Chelsea Hotel, which boasted a now-legendary collection of eccentrics and cultural icons is terrific, as is that of Max's Kansas City.
One of my favorite vignettes was when Allen Ginsberg tried to pick her up in an automat. He paid for her sandwich, which cost ten cents more than she had, and then, after sitting at a table with her for several minutes, leaned in and asked if she was a girl. When she says yes and asks if that's a problem, does he want the sandwich back, he just laughs and says, no, she can keep the sandwich, but he had thought her a very pretty boy.
Mapplethorpe himself perhaps remains the most elusive figure. When he is closest to her, as her lover and artistic collaborator, he hasn't yet come out, even perhaps to himself, as a gay man, and this makes for an incomplete portrait, of course, even though Smith does spend a good deal of time on his conservative-Catholic upbringing as a reason for his inner conflicts. When he does begin to explore his sexuality, he does it away from her, as a street hustler and, of course, in the dark shadows of the extreme S&M world he photographed. He feels emotionally distant, a bit of a cipher. But, as elusive as he may be, their bonds to each other are never in question.
The youthful posturing and artistic grandiosity of these two is fascinating. They sometimes question their talent (who doesn't?) but never abandon the belief they will one day be famous, be Real Artists. When I hear most young people say such things, I have a tendency to shake my head knowingly, but this story reminds me that every once in a while, as with these two, maybe not all such dreams are delusion.