A Fortunate Bad Date

After finishing Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir Just Kids last week, Malcolm Gladwell’s work Outliers came to mind. In Outliers Gladwell argues that in order to achieve success in an area, luck, fortune, and chance factor as much into the outcome as does a person’s abilities—a proposition I bet Patti Smith would agree with.

Even without reading Just Kids, an observer of Patti Smith’s career would know that controversial photopgrapher Robert Mapplethorpe played a pivotal role in shaping Smith’s image. He took all the pictures on Smith’s classic 70s albums, including 1975’s Horses, one of the all-time great album covers. With a school girl blazer drapped her shoulder, Smith’s detached but cocked glare announced the arrival of a new wave of NYC rock and roll—all in glorious black-and-white.

Just Kids is based upon the Mapplethorpe-Smith relationship. In the book Smith recounts how Mapplethorpe, always ambitious, constantly encouraged Smith to do more: do openings, readings, shows and eventually concerts. After hearing Smith’s first indie single, “Hey Joe”/”Piss Factory,” Mapplethorpe pouted “you didn’t make anything we could dance to.” Mapplethorpe was the first to hear the Smith/Springsteen collaboration “Because the Night.” because she knew Mapplethorpe would be pleased; it was “fulfilling Robert’s dream that one day I would have a hit record.”

So how did Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith meet? On her first day in New York in 1967, she briefly encountered him while looking for a friend from college and remembered him (“I had never seen anyone like him”). Later that summer Smith is working in bookstore from which Mapplethorpe buys a piece of jewelry Smith admires; they strike up a conversation.

That night, Mapplethorpe comes in Smith’s life permanently, saving Smith from a bad date. After being dined by older, unappealing man, her date asks her up to his room:

“This was it, I thought, the pivotal moment my mother had warned me about. I saw a young man approaching. It was as if a small portal of future opened, and out stepped the boy from Brooklyn who had chosen the Persian necklace, like an answer to a teenage prayer.”

“I need your help,” I blurted, “Will you pretend you are my boyfriend?”

“Sure,” he said, as if he wasn’t surprised by my sudden appearance.

Free, they roam Manhattan, where Smith discovers Mapplethorpe was tripping on LSD during the episode.

During the 70s Smith was portrayed in the media often as a stereotype, as an out-there, weird, androgynous, possibly drug-abusing art-type–she was an influence for Gilda Ratner’s Candy Slice rock star parody.

But while Smith may have been flaky, she claims never to have been as self-destructive as Mapplethorpe. At first romantically involved, Mapplethorpe and Smith remained friends after Mapplethorpe explores the grey area of sexuality in the various echelons of New York society . In describing Mapplethorpe’s hustling “on the east side, near Bloomington’s” Smith was both sympathetic but also fearful of Mapplethorpe’s behavior:

“I begged him not to go, but he was determined to try. My tears did not stop him, so I sat and watched him dress for the night ahead. I imagined him standing on a corner, flushed with excitement, offering himself to a stranger, to make money for us.”

She probably incorporated Mapplethorpe’s stylings and behavior into her act.

Just Kids is a good read for its name dropping. While living at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York she became friends with musicologist Robert Smith, beat icon William Burroughs and had a short affair with playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she co-authored the short play Cowboy Mouth. Smith is also touchingly honest describing the child she gave up for adoption at 17.

Her explanation of the line “Jesus died from someone’s sins/but not mine” from “Gloria?” “I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my actions. Christ was a man worthy of rebelling against, for he was rebellion itself.” Make sense? Sorry, Patti, I stay with my own interpretation: the narrator considers herself true evil, beyond redemption.

After reading Just Kids, one wonders would there be a “Gloria,” “Ask the Angels,” “Horses,” or other Smith classics if a young budding artist had not entered the Brentano’s bookstore in the summer of ’67.

— This is courtesy of Jeff Ehrbar / Hearsaynow.com

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