Patti Smith met Robert Mapplethorpe on her first day in New York City in the summer of1967. They were both kids from stern religious backgrounds who yearned to be artists. Smith tells the story of their relationship in a new memoir titled Just Kids. “Sometimes [people] seem to think I came out of the womb, you know, cursing, with an electric guitar,” Smith says in an NPR interview with Deborah Amos. “I think it’s important for people to realize that we were all young, all naive, and also we had lived in a time that had magic.”
In a few short years, Patti Smith became the Godmother of Punk, and Robert Mapplethorpe the Bad Boy of Photography. His shocking images led to an epic free speech battle waged by Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center. Along the way, Mapplethorpe shot the iconic photo (above) for Horses, Smith’s 1975 breakthrough album. Like too many artists of his generation, Mapplethorpe developed AIDS in the 1980s. “I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write our story,” Smith remembers. “It took me 20 years, but I kept my promise.”
An excerpt from Just Kids by Patti Smith:
“My mother taught me to pray; she taught me the prayer her mother taught her. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. At nightfall, I knelt before my little bed as she stood, with her ever-present cigarette, listening as I recited after her. I wished nothing more than to say my prayers, yet these words troubled me and I plagued her with questions. What is the soul? What color is it? I suspected my soul, being mischievous, might slip away while I was dreaming and fail to return. I did my best not to fall asleep, to keep it inside of me where it belonged.
“Perhaps to satisfy my curiosity, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. We were taught by rote, Bible verses and the words of Jesus. Afterward we stood in line and were rewarded with a spoonful of comb honey. There was only one spoon in the jar to serve many coughing children. I instinctively shied from the spoon but I swiftly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in continual motion, like liquid stars.
Not contented with my child’s prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own. I was relieved when I no longer had to repeat the words If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could say instead what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions, and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.
My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination. This process was especially magnified within the fevers of influenza, measles, chicken pox, and mumps. I had them all and with each I was privileged with a new level of awareness. Lying deep within myself, the symmetry of a snowflake spinning above me, intensifying through my lids, I seized a most worthy souvenir, a shard of heaven’s kaleidoscope. Read more.