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Patti Smith Remembers Life With Mapplethorpe

Jan 15, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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More than 40 years after she first moved to the city, Patti Smith is enough of a New York icon that despite her less-than-ostentatious manner — she arrived alone at NPR's New York studios wearing a knit cap and scuffed snow boots — some people who see her on the street stop her to say hello.

It wasn't always that way. She first arrived in the city at 20 years old, an aspiring artist with a passion for French poets and American rock 'n' roll. Smith recounts those years, and in particular her relationship with the provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in a new book called Just Kids.

"Sometimes [people] seem to think I came out of the womb, you know, cursing, with an electric guitar," Smith tells NPR's 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."

Smith met the 21-year-old Mapplethorpe on her first day in the city, and Just Kids is the story of their romance, friendship and creative bond. She and Mapplethorpe met in the summer of 1967, both children of religious upbringings, both influenced by ideas about art and outsider culture. Smith writes of staying up late to paint and listen to records in their shared apartment on Hall Street in Brooklyn, but when they first became friends, they were so poor, they sometimes slept on the street.

"You know, I wasn't a stranger to hard times. I used to read the Bible — well, I still do, but when I was young I read the Bible quite a bit — and by Christ's example, he embraced poverty," Smith says. "So, all of my role models, whether it was the disciples, or John the Baptist or Arthur Rimbaud, slept under the stars."

Smith dismisses the notion that the godmother of punk reading the Bible might strike some as a surprise.

"I don't know why," she says. "The very first word on my very first record is 'Jesus.' "

The line, in its entirety, is, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." Smith says the negation doesn't much matter.

"I still invoke him as an entity to reckon with."

An Artistic Pair

As Smith describes him in Just Kids, Mapplethorpe is striking, a "Hippie shepherd boy" with dark curls. She says the pair — two-of-a-kind, lanky outsiders who shared artistic drive and a physical connection — "fulfilled a role for each other."

"As it says in the book," Smith says, "we woke up knowing that we were no longer alone."

They also influenced each other's art. But Smith stops short of taking credit for guiding Mapplethorpe to the medium that made him famous.

"I said, 'You should take your own photographs.' I didn't mean for him to become a photographer," she says. "Once he started taking pictures, he just fell in love with photography."

Mapplethorpe took the iconic cover photograph for Smith's first album, Horses, which came out in 1975.

"The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one," Smith says. "I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about 12 pictures. By the eighth one he said, 'I got it.' "

In Just Kids, Smith writes that when she looks at the photo today, "I never see me. I see us."

The book, she says, is the story of Smith and Mapplethorpe, together, becoming the artists that the world knew.

"Really, when I met Robert, we were unformed. That's why I called the book Just Kids," Smith says. "I really want people to comprehend that we were young. And it took a while to become who we evolved into. And I think for Robert it was a struggle, because at a certain point it meant that he had to make a choice."

Mapplethorpe's choice was to explore his sexuality, to leave New York for San Francisco and come back with a boyfriend, to create photographs with explicit, sometimes shocking nudity.

"I knew that I could never have a relationship with him the way that he would with a male," Smith says. "But of course as time went by, I realized that what Robert and I had, no one else would have, male or female."

Mapplethorpe died in 1989 after battling AIDS. Both he and Smith knew it was coming.

"Oh, it was very painful," Smith says. But they remained partners until the end.

"I promised Robert the day before he died that I would write our story," Smith says. "And it took me 20 years, but I kept my promise."

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