Off-Ramp cultural correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "An Evening with Patti Smith" at The Getty Museum, staged in connection with retrospectives of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe — with whom she began a relationship at 20 — at the Getty and LACMA.
Patti Smith, more beautiful than ever in her sexy flowing white hair, sang, read and recited gloriously for us at the Getty last weekend. It is generous of her to live for us in the shadow of Robert Mapplethorpe, now in his moment of total discovery.
His drawings and photos, which also fill a nearby Getty gallery, were back-projected on her little Getty stage. His youth-frozen face and pale eyes dominated the auditorium as she spoke and sang. She’s had 27 very tough years since Mapplethorpe died in 1989: years of loss — her brother and her husband in the 1990s — and accomplishment — about a dozen albums, two children, a grandchild. She's also gone from pioneer of punk to world priestess of pop. And while she was at it, she picked up a National Book Award for the bestselling 2010 memoir “Just Kids,” from which she read to us.
She wears her accomplishments modestly. She is far more famous now than Mapplethorpe ever was in his lifetime. Songs like “Because the Night” and “People Have the Power" inhabit our ears. But so does her central story, her inspirational, life-informing legend, really, of the two young lover/kindred souls on the cusp of 1970, advancing and creating as one spirit. Wandering the welcoming, long-lost streets of Mayor John Lindsay’s luminous New York, among the citizens, junkies, hippies, students, tourists and, it would seem, more than a few substantial artists. (Her story about how Alan Ginsburg tried to pick her up in an Automat restaurant “Because I mistook you for a very pretty boy” is without price.)
She gives it all back to us now with a hard-earned maturity and a musicianship that far exceeds what she could deliver in her proto-punk “Horses” days, 40 years ago. She is entitled to the Mapplethorpe legend of her choice. And now she is promoting his fame as he long ago promoted hers. There is justice in this.
That said, for anyone who knew her even slightly in 1970, “Just Kids” seems as selective a narrative as Lillian Hellman’s memoirs. It elides what were likely the enormous pains from her loss of Mapplethorpe to his gay destiny. Someday, a biographer may give us a better idea of all that happened in those few vital years when she and Mapplethorpe shared one another in Brooklyn and the Hotel Chelsea.
When she called me in 1970, asking for a favor, she was not at the Chelsea. She said she was living on a couch in a famous Manhattan club — Steve Paul’s The Scene — where the Doors and Jimi Hendrix made breakout appearances. She wanted, of all things, a set of review proofs for a novel I edited at Doubleday, the problematic masterpiece of a much acclaimed (in France) author who called himself Blaise Cendrars. Cendrars and his most famous novel, “Moravagine,” however, were so unknown in the U.S. that my colleagues thought I was committing career suicide by publishing it.
But Smith knew about it. She said that she wanted to read Cendrars, even before he was published, because he was strongly influenced by her favorite poet, Arthur Rimbaud. I’d never encountered a common reader who felt empowered to ask for an advance proof. I looked to the shelf where “Moravagine” review proofs lay in big yellowish bundles. A few had gone to major reviewers who’d ignored them, but we still had plenty to spare.
I messengered the proofs to 301 W. 46th St.; I had never sent a book to a nightclub before, either. A few days later, she mailed me a note, which I wish I still had:
Dear Mr. Haefele,
Thanks so much for “Moravagine.” I loved it.
And just you wait. You’re going to hear about me one of these days.
— Patti Smith