A few months ago I heard an interview with Patti Smith talking about this book and her time with Robert Mapplethorpe. I was aware of both of them, but didn’t know they had a history together, which intrigued me enough to buy the book.
The book covers a period of time from the mid 60s, when Smith is still living in New Jersey with her parents, to the late 80s when she is raising a family of her own in Detroit. The bulk of the story however, takes place in New York City in the late 60s and early 70s, as both Smith and Mapplethorpe are new to the city. Throughout the book, Smith writes of the tragedies of the era, such as the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison. This leads to a darkly comic account where a friend of Smith’s with a J in his name is convinced he’s the next to die because the letter J is like a curse, bringing an early death to those affected.
Having read some poorly written autobiographies of other musicians, I found Patti Smith’s writing to be both wonderful and evocative. She makes the reader feel as if they are with her, as she describes places as varied as the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Max’s Kansas City, the Hotel Chelsea, and countless apartments and studios that she and Robert shared in New York City. As well as the places, she offers such rich details of moments, that the reader feels they are there with her. For example, she shares an anecdote about Alan Ginsburg paying for her lunch at an Automat, but mainly because he mistook her for a cute boy. Writing about these moments, she describes the scenes and recalls the conversations, immersing the reader in a version of New York that no longer exists.
Most of the book is about Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe. Shortly after moving to New York, Smith is basically homeless, when Robert sees her and takes pity on her, offering her some food and a place to stay. They bond over an appreciation of art, as both of them aspire to become famous artists. However, being “just kids”, they had a lot to learn as they tried expressing themselves through different artistic mediums. For Robert, collages led their way to photography. For Smith, her drawings led her to poetry, which further led her to music. Each served as muse for the other, but they both found other sources of inspiration along the way.
While the obvious audience for this book is people who like to read autobiographies of musicians, people who are interested in Robert Mapplethorpe and his art will also enjoy it. The arts scene in New York City plays an important part in the book, most notably Andy Warhol and The Factory. The book will also appeal to those who are interested in love, poetry, and NYC history.