Patti Smith: Just Kids

I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train,
I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City
I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City,
I’m gonna be so big, I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn at this Piss Factory

– Patti Smith, ‘Piss Factory’

I have been reading extracts from Patti Smith’s memoir of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which has just been published.  The  extracts are so beautifully written and so evocative that this has to go on my list of must-read books. The following extracts are published in today’s Observer and in Rolling Stone on January 7.

On 3 July 1967, Patti Smith  – a 20-year-old dropout from teacher-training college who had just given up a child for adoption – boarded a bus in Philadelphia and, a couple of hours later, got off in New York to start life anew. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the first people she met that day. Soon the pair were inseparable, working side by side in their apartment – she building a career as a poet and singer, he as a photographer –  and mixing with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin,  Andy Warhol and Sam Shepard.

At 20 years old, I boarded the bus from Philadelphia to New York. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old grey raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.

I immediately took the subway from Port Authority to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. It was a sunny afternoon. I was hoping my friends might put me up until I could find a place of my own. I went to the brownstone at the address I had, but they had moved. The new tenant motioned toward a room at the rear of the flat and suggested that his roommate might know the new address.

I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled.

When I told him of my plight, he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him. I watched him as he walked ahead, leading the way with a light-footed gait, slightly bowlegged. I noticed his hands as he tapped his fingers against his thigh. I had never seen anyone like him. He delivered me to another brownstone on Clinton Avenue, gave a little farewell salute, smiled, and was on his way.

[Smith’s friends were not to be found at this house either, and she spent the next few weeks sleeping rough.]

It was hot in the city, but I still wore my raincoat. It gave me confidence as I hit the streets looking for work. I was relieved when I was hired as a cashier in the uptown branch of Brentano’s bookstore. I would have preferred manning the poetry section over ringing up sales of ethnic jewellery and crafts, but I liked looking at trinkets from faraway countries. My favorite object was a modest necklace from Persia. It was made of two enamelled metal plaques bound together with heavy black and silver threads, like a very old and exotic scapular. It cost $18, which seemed like a lot of money. When things were quiet I would take it out of the case and trace the calligraphy etched upon its violet surface, and dream up tales of its origins.

Shortly after I started working there, the boy I had briefly met in Brooklyn came into the store. He looked quite different in his white shirt and tie, like a Catholic schoolboy. He explained that he worked at Brentano’s downtown branch and had a credit slip he wanted to use. He spent a long time looking at everything, the beads, the small figurines, the turquoise rings.

Finally he said, “I want this.” It was the Persian necklace.

“Oh, it’s my favorite too,” I answered. “It reminds me of a scapular.”

“Are you a Catholic?” he asked me.

“No, I just like Catholic things.”

“I was an altar boy.” He grinned at me. “I loved to swing the frankincense censer.”

I was happy because he had selected the piece I singled out, yet sad to see it go. When I wrapped it and handed it to him, I said impulsively, “Don’t give it to any girl but me.”

I was immediately embarrassed, but he just smiled and said, “I won’t.”

By the end of my first week I was very hungry and still had nowhere to go. I took to sleeping in the store. I would hide in the bathroom while the others left, and after the nightwatchman locked up I would sleep on my coat. In the morning it would appear I had gotten to work early. I hadn’t a dime and rummaged through employees’ pockets for change to buy peanut butter crackers in the vending machine. Demoralised by hunger, I was shocked when there was no envelope for me on payday. I had not understood that the first week’s pay was withheld, and I went back to the cloakroom in tears.

When I returned to my counter, I noticed a guy lurking around, watching me. He had a beard and was wearing a pinstripe shirt . The supervisor introduced us. He was a science-fiction writer and he wanted to take me out to dinner. Even though I was 20, my mother’s warning not to go anywhere with a stranger reverberated in my consciousness. But the prospect of dinner weakened me, and I accepted.We walked down to a restaurant at the base of the Empire State Building. I had never eaten at a nice place in New York City.But even though I was starving, I could hardly enjoy it. I felt uncomfortable and had no idea how to handle the situation. It seemed like he was spending a lot of money on me and I got to worrying what he would expect in return.

After the meal we walked all the way downtown. He suggested we go up to his apartment for a drink. This was it, I thought, the pivotal moment my mother had warned me about. I was looking around desperately when 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 immediately recognised his slightly bowlegged gait and his tousled curls. He was dressed in dungarees and a sheepskin vest. Around his neck hung strands of beaded necklaces, a hippie shepherd boy. I ran up to him and grabbed his arm.

“Hello, do you remember me?”

“Of course,” he smiled.

“I need help.” I blurted, “Will you pretend you’re my boyfriend?”

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

I dragged him over to the science-fiction guy. “This is my boyfriend,” I said breathlessly. “He’s been looking for me. He’s really mad. He wants me to come home now.” The guy looked at us both quizzically.

“Run,” I cried, and the boy grabbed my hand and we took off, through the park across to the other side.

Out of breath, we collapsed on someone’s stoop. “Thank you, you saved my life,” I said. He accepted this news with a bemused expression.

“I never told you my name, it’s Patti.”

“My name is Bob.”

“Bob,” I said, really looking at him for the first time. “Somehow you don’t seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?”

The sun had set over Avenue B. He took my hand and we wandered the East Village. I did most of the talking. He just smiled and listened. I told him childhood stories, the first of many. I was surprised at how comfortable and open I felt with him. He told me later that he was tripping on acid.

I had only read about LSD and I wasn’t aware of the drug culture that was blooming in the summer of ’67. But Robert didn’t seem altered or strange in any way I might have imagined. He radiated a charm that was sweet and mischievous, shy and protective. We walked around until two in the morning and finally, almost simultaneously, revealed that neither one of us had a place to go. We laughed about that. But it was late and we were both tired.

“I think I know somewhere we can stay,” he said. His last room-mate was out of town. “I know where he hides his key; I don’t think he would mind.”

We got the subway out to Brooklyn found the key and let ourselves into the apartment.

We both fell shy when we entered, not so much because we were alone together as that it was someone else’s place. Robert busied himself making me comfortable and then, in spite of the late hour, asked if I would like to see his work that was stored in a back room. Robert spread it out over the floor for me to see. There were drawings, etchings, and paintings. Paintings and drawings that seemed to emerge from the subconscious.

I had never seen anything like it. We looked at books on Dada and Surrealism and ended the night immersed in Michelangelo. As dawn broke we fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight.

As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe on the balcony of their NY loft on W23rd St, 1971. Photo by Gerard Malanga.

In the summer of 1969 Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved to the Chelsea Hotel:

I had no concept of what life at the Chelsea Hotel would be like when we checked in, but I soon realised it was a tremendous stroke of luck to wind up there. We could have had a fair-sized railroad flat in the East Village for what we were paying, but to dwell in this eccentric and damned hotel provided a sense of security as well as a stellar education. A week or two after we moved in I waltzed into the El Quixote. It was a bar-restaurant adjacent to the hotel, connected to the lobby by its own door, which made it feel like our bar, as it had been for decades. Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O’Neill and Thomas Wolfe were among those who had raised one too many a glass there.

I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila. I stood there amazed, yet I didn’t feel like an intruder. The Chelsea was my home and the El Quixote my bar. There were no security guards, no pervasive sense of privilege.

They were here for the Woodstock festival. Grace Slick got up and brushed past me. She was wearing a floor-length tie-dyed dress and had dark violet eyes like Liz Taylor.

“Hello,” I said, noticing I was taller.

“Hello yourself,” she said.

When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly 22-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems. The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive. My adventures were mildly mischievous, tapping open a door slightly ajar and getting a glimpse of Virgil Thomson’s grand piano, or loitering before the nameplate of Arthur C Clarke, hoping he might suddenly emerge. Occasionally I would bump into Gert Schiff, the German scholar, armed with volumes on Picasso, or Viva in Eau Sauvage. Everyone had something to offer and nobody appeared to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.

I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumors of Oscar Wilde’s trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas, submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Thomas Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can’t Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on our floor, and a speeding Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire while gluing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight.

So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor.

Robert’s great wish was to break into the world that surrounded Andy Warhol, though he had no desire to be part of his stable or to star in his movies. Robert often said he knew Andy’s game, and felt that if he could talk to him, Andy would recognise him as an equal. Although I believed he merited an audience with Andy, I felt any significant dialogue with him was unlikely, for Andy was like an eel, perfectly able to slither from any meaningful confrontation. This mission led us to the city’s Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Factory, all located within walking distance of one another. The Factory had moved from its original location on 47th Street to 33 Union Square. Brownie’s was a health-food restaurant around the corner where the Warhol people ate lunch, and Max’s where they spent their nights.

The politics at Max’s were very similar to high school, except the popular people were not the cheerleaders or football heroes and the prom queen would most certainly be a he, dressed as a she, knowing more about being a she than most she’s.

Max’s Kansas City was on 18th Street and Park Avenue South. It was supposedly a restaurant, though few of us actually had the money to eat there. The owner, Mickey Ruskin, was notoriously artist-friendly, even offering a free cocktail-hour buffet for those with the price of a drink. It was said that this buffet, which included Buffalo wings, kept a lot of struggling artists and drag queens alive. I never frequented it as I was working and Robert, who didn’t drink, was too proud to go. There was a big black-and-white awning flanked by a bigger sign announcing that you were about to enter Max’s Kansas City. It was casual and sparse, adorned with large abstract pieces of art given to Mickey by artists who ran up supernatural bar tabs. The big draw was surf and turf: steak and lobster. The back room, bathed in red light, was Robert’s objective, and the definitive target was the legendary round table that still harbored the rose-coloured aura of the absent silver king.

On our first visit we only made it as far as the front section. We sat in a booth and split a salad and ate the inedible chickpeas. Robert ordered Coke. I had a coffee. The place was fairly dead.

In recent memory the round table had seated such royalty as Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Nico, Tim Buckley, Janis Joplin, Viva and the Velvet Underground. It was as darkly glamorous as one could wish for. But running through the primary artery, the thing that ultimately accelerated their world and then took them down, was speed. Amphetamine magnified their paranoia, robbed some of their innate powers, drained their confidence, and ravaged their beauty.

Andy Warhol was no longer there, nor was his high court. Andy didn’t go out as much since Valerie Solanas shot him, but it was also likely he had become characteristically bored. Despite his absence, in the fall of 1969 it was still the place to go. The back room was the haven for those desiring the keys to Andy’s second silver kingdom, often described more as a place of commerce than of art. Our Max’s debut was uneventful and we splurged on a taxi home. Nonetheless, Robert and I continued to go to Max’s and we eventually graduated to the back room and sat in a corner under the Dan Flavin fluorescent sculpture, washed in red light. The gatekeeper, Dorothy Dean, had taken a liking to Robert and let us pass.

I knew that Max’s was important to Robert. He was so supportive of my work that I could not refuse him this nightly ritual. Mickey Ruskin allowed us to sit for hours nursing coffee and Coca-Colas and hardly ordering a thing. Some nights were totally dead. We would walk home exhausted and Robert would say we were never going back. Other nights were desperately animated, a dark cabaret infused with the manic energy of 30s Berlin. Screaming catfights erupted between frustrated actresses and indignant drag queens. They all seemed as if they were auditioning for a phantom, and that phantom was Andy Warhol. I wondered if he cared about them at all.

One such night, Danny Fields, the Ramones’ manager, came over and invited us to sit at the round table. This single gesture afforded us a trial residency, which was an important step for Robert. He was elegant in his response. He just nodded and led me to the table. He didn’t reveal at all how much it meant to him.

Robert was at ease because, at last, he was where he wanted to be. I can’t say I felt comfortable at all. The girls were pretty but brutal, perhaps because there seemed a low percentage of interested males. I could tell they tolerated me and were attracted to Robert. He was as much their target as their inner circle was his. It seemed as if they were all after him, male and female, but at the time Robert was motivated by ambition, not sex.

He was elated with clearing this small yet monumental hurdle. But privately I thought that the round table, even at the best of times, was innately doomed. Disbanded by Andy, banded by us, no doubt to be disbanded again to accommodate the next scene.

I looked around at everyone bathed in the blood light of the back room. Dan Flavin had conceived his installation in response to the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam. No one in the back room was slated to die in Vietnam, though few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation.

In February Robert took me to the Factory to see rushes of Trash. It was the first time we had been invited, and Robert was filled with anticipation. I was not moved by the movie; perhaps it wasn’t French enough for me. Robert circulated easily in the Warhol circle, though taken aback by the clinical atmosphere of the new Factory, and disappointed that Andy himself did not make an appearance.

As we were leaving in the elevator, Fred Hughes, who managed the Factory, addressed me in a condescending voice. “Ohhh, your hair is very Joan Baez. Are you a folksinger?” I don’t know why, as I admired her, but it bugged me.

Robert took my hand. “Just ignore him,” he said.

I found myself in a dark humor. One of those nights when the mind starts looping bothersome things, I got to thinking about what Fred Hughes had said. Screw him, I thought, annoyed at being dismissed. I looked at myself in the mirror over the sink. I realised that I hadn’t cut my hair any different since I was a teenager. I sat on the floor and spread out the few rock magazines I had. I usually bought them to get any new pictures of Bob Dylan, but it wasn’t Bob I was looking for. I cut out all the pictures I could find of Keith Richards. I studied them for a while and took up the scissors, machete-ing my way out of the folk era. I washed my hair in the hallway bathroom and shook it dry. It was a liberating experience.

Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe,1975

Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe,1975

When Robert came home, he was surprised but pleased. “What possessed you?” he asked. I just shrugged. But when we went to Max’s, my haircut caused quite a stir. I couldn’t believe all the fuss over it. Though I was still the same person, my social status suddenly elevated. My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet. I thought of the girls I knew back in high school. They dreamed of being singers but wound up hairdressers. I desired neither vocation, but in weeks to come I would be cutting a lot of people’s hair, and singing at La MaMa. Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.

Opportunities suddenly arose. I was sitting in the lobby one day in my usual spot, bent over my orange composition book containing my cycle of poems for Brian Jones. I was dressed in my Song of the South get-up – straw hat, Brer Rabbit jacket, work boots, and pegged pants – and was hammering away at the same set of phrases when I was interrupted by an oddly familiar voice.

“Whatcha doin’, darlin’?”

I looked up into the face of a stranger sporting the perfect pair of dark glasses.

“Writing.”

“Are you a poet?”

“Maybe.”

I shifted in my seat, acting disinterested, pretending like I didn’t recognise him, but there was no mistaking the drawl in his voice, nor his shady smile. I knew exactly who I was facing; he was the guy in Don’t Look Back. The other one. Bobby Neuwirth, the peacemaker-provocateur. Bob Dylan’s alter ego.

He was a painter, singer-songwriter, producer and risk-taker. He was a trusted confidant to many of the great minds and musicians of his generation, which was just a beat before mine.

To hide how impressed I was, I got up, nodded, and headed toward the door without saying goodbye. He called out to me.

“Hey, where did you learn to walk like that?”

I turned. “From Don’t Look Back.”

He just laughed and asked me to join him in the El Quixote for a shot of tequila. I wasn’t a drinker but I downed a shot, without the lemon and salt, just to seem cool. He was easy to talk to and we covered everything from Hank Williams to abstract expressionism. He seemed to take a liking to me. He took the notebook out of my hands and checked it out. I guess he saw potential, for he said, “Did you ever think of writing songs?” I wasn’t sure how to answer.

“Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” he said as we exited the bar.

That was all he had to say. When he left, I pledged to write him a song. I had fooled with lyrics for Matthew, made up a few Appalachian-style songs for Harry, but didn’t think much of it. Now I had a real mission and someone worthy of having a mission for. Robert came home late, sullen and a little angry that I’d had drinks with a strange guy. But the next morning he agreed it was inspiring that someone like Bob Neuwirth was interested in my work. “Maybe he’ll be the one to get you to sing,” he said, “but always remember who wanted you to sing first.”

Robert had always liked my voice. When we lived in Brooklyn he would ask me to sing him to sleep, and I would sing him the songs of Piaf and Child ballads.

“I don’t want to sing. I just want to write songs for him. I want to be a poet, not a singer.”

“You can be both,” he said.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, NYC 1977

Here’s another extract, published in Rolling Stone:

For my 21st birthday, Robert made me a tambourine, tattooing the goatskin with astrological signs and tying multicolored ribbons to its base. He put on Tim Buckley singing “Phantasmagoria in Two,” then he knelt down and handed me a small book on the tarot that he had rebound in black silk. Inside it he inscribed a few lines of poetry, portraying us as the gypsy and the fool, one creating silence, one listening closely to the silence. In the clanging swirl of our lives, these roles would reverse many times.

The following night was New Year’s Eve, our first together. We made new vows. Robert decided he would apply for a student loan and return to Pratt, not to study commercial art as his father wished, but to devote his energies to art alone. He wrote me a note to say we would create art together and we would make it, with or without the rest of the world.

It was going to be a hard winter. Robert was depressed working full-time at FAO Schwarz. Working as a window trimmer sparked his imagination and he made installation sketches. But he did less and less drawing. We lived on day-old bread and Dinty Moore beef stew. We hadn’t the money to go anywhere, had no television, telephone or radio. We had our record player, though, and drew back the arm so a chosen record would play over and over as we slept.

I needed to get another job. My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner’s Bookstore, and she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell.

Scribner’s was housed in a beautiful landmark building at 597 Fifth Avenue. The glass-fronted Beaux Arts-style exterior had been designed by Ernest Flagg in 1913. There was a two-and-a-half-story space behind a lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows. Each day I rose, dutifully dressed and made the three subway changes to Rockefeller Center. My uniform for Scribner’s was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights and flats. I was positioned at the phone desk, which was manned by the kindhearted and supportive Faith Cross. I felt lucky to be associated with such a historic bookstore. My salary was higher, and I had Janet as a confidante. I was rarely bored, and when I got restless, I wrote on the back of Scribner’s stationery, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, scribbling poems on the inside of cardboard boxes.

Robert was increasingly despondent. The hours were long. When he came home he was exhausted and dispirited and for a time stopped creating.

I implored him to quit. His job and scant paycheck were not worth the sacrifice. After nights of discussion, he reluctantly agreed. In return, he worked diligently, always anxious to show me what he had accomplished while I was at Scribner’s. I had no regrets taking on the job as breadwinner. My temperament was sturdier. I could still create at night, and I was proud to provide a situation allowing him to do his work without compromise.

At night, after trudging through the snow, I found him waiting for me in our apartment, ready to rub my hands to make them warm. He seemed always in motion, heating water on the stove, unlacing my boots, hanging up my coat, always with one eye on the drawing he was working on. He would stop for a moment if he noticed something. Most of the time, it seemed as if the piece was fully formed in his mind. He was not one for improvising. It was more a question of executing something he saw in a flash.

Existing in silence all day, he was eager to hear my stories of the bookstore’s eccentric customers, of Edward Gorey with his big tennis shoes or Katharine Hepburn wearing Spencer Tracy’s cap covered with a green silk head scarf or the Rothschilds with their long black coats. Afterward, we would sit on the floor and eat spaghetti while examining his work. I was attracted to Robert’s work because his visual vocabulary was akin to my poetic one, even if we seemed to be moving toward different destinations. Robert always would tell me, “Nothing is finished until you see it.”

Our first winter together was a harsh one. Even with my better salary from Scribner’s, we had very little money. Often we’d stand in the cold on the corner of St. James Place in eyeshot of the Greek diner and Jake’s art supply store, debating how to spend our few dollars — a toss-up between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies. Sometimes, unable to distinguish the greater hunger, Robert would keep nervous watch in the diner while I, filled with the spirit of Genet, pocketed the much-needed brass sharpener or colored pencils. I had a more romantic view of the artist’s life and sacrifices. I had once read that Lee Krasner had lifted art supplies for Jackson Pollock. I don’t know if it was true, but it served as inspiration. Robert fretted over not being able to provide for us. I told him not to worry, that committing to great art is its own reward.

At night we played the records we liked to draw to on our battered player. Sometimes we played a game called Record of the Night. The album cover of the chosen record would be prominently displayed on the mantel, the music informing the trajectory of the evening.

It did not bother me to work in obscurity. I was hardly more than a student. Yet Robert, though shy, nonverbal and seemingly out of step with those around him, was very ambitious. He held Duchamp and Warhol as models. High art and high society; he aspired to them both. We were a curious mix of Funny Face and Faust.

One cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together. We would get lost for hours. His ability to concentrate for long periods infected me, and I learned by his example, working side by side. When we would take a break, I would boil water and make some Nescafé.

After a particularly good stretch of work, we would stroll along Myrtle Avenue, searching for Mallomars, splurging on Robert’s favorite treat, a marshmallow cookie covered in dark chocolate. Although we spent most of our time together, we weren’t isolated.

Our friends would come to visit. Harvey Parks and Louis Delsarte were painters; sometimes they worked on the floor next to us. Louis did portraits of us both, Robert with an Indian necklace and one of me with closed eyes. Ed Hansen shared his wisdom and collages, and Janet Hamill read us her poems. I would show my drawings and tell stories about them, like Wendy entertaining the lost children of Neverland. We were a crew of misfits, even within the liberal terrain of an art school. We often joked that we were a “losers’ salon.”

On special nights, Harvey, Louis and Robert would share a joint and play hand drums. Robert had his own set of tablas. And they accompanied themselves by reciting from Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers, one of the few books Robert actually read. Occasionally I would read their cards, deriving meanings from a mix of Papus and my own intuition. These were nights like none I had experienced in South Jersey, whimsical and filled with love.

A new friend entered my life. Robert introduced me to Judy Linn, a fellow graphics student, and we liked each other right away. She was pretty and intelligent with an offbeat sense of humor, like a young Ida Lupino. She eventually pursued photography, spending years perfecting her darkroom techniques. In time I became her subject and she produced some of the earliest images of Robert and me.

On Valentine’s Day, Robert gave me an amethyst geode. It was pale violet and nearly the size of a half grapefruit. He submerged it in water and we looked at the glowing crystals. When I was a kid I had dreamed of being a geologist. I recounted how I spent hours looking for rock specimens, wearing an old hammer tied around my waist. “No, Patti, no,” he laughed.

My gift to him was an ivory heart with a cross carved in the center. Something in this object provoked a rare childhood tale from him, and he told me how he and the other altar boys would secretly rummage through the priests’ private closet and drink the vestment wine. The wine didn’t interest him; it was the funny feeling in his stomach that excited him, the thrill of doing something forbidden.

In the beginning of March, Robert got a temp job as an usher for the newly opened Fillmore East. He reported for duty in an orange jumpsuit. He was looking forward to seeing Tim Buckley. But when he came home he was more excited by someone else. “I saw someone who’s going to be really big,” he said. It was Janis Joplin.

We didn’t have the money to go to concerts, but before Robert left the Fillmore he got me a pass to see the Doors. I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence. He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian. When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.

It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We had moved into the Chelsea Hotel. Though autumn was ending, it was a bright Indian-summer kind of day. I had gathered our laundry, slipped on an old cotton dress, stockings and a sweater, and headed toward Eighth Avenue. I put the stuff in the washer with a fair amount of baking soda and walked the couple of blocks to Asia de Cuba to get a café con leche.

I folded our things. The song we called ours came on, Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang on to a Dream.” We were both dreamers, but Robert was the one who got things done. I made the money, but he had drive and focus. He had plans for himself but for me as well. He wanted us to develop our work, but there was no room. All the wall space was taken. There was no possibility for him to realize his installations. His spray painting was bad for my persistent cough. He sometimes went up on the Chelsea roof but it was getting too cold. Finally he decided he was going to find a raw space for us, and began looking through The Village Voice and asking around.

Then he had a piece of luck. We had a neighbor, an overweight sad sack in a rumpled overcoat, who walked his French bulldog back and forth on 23rd Street. He and his dog had identical faces of slack folding skin. We coded him Pigman. Robert noticed he lived a few doors down, over the Oasis Bar. One evening he stopped to pet the dog and struck up a conversation. Robert asked him if he knew of any vacancies in his building, and Pigman told him he had the whole second floor but the front room was just for storage. Robert asked if he could sublet it. At first he was reluctant, but the dog liked Robert and he agreed, offering the front room starting January 1st for $100 a month. Robert wasn’t sure where the money would come from but sealed it with a handshake.

Robert took me over to see the space. There were floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking 23rd Street, and we could see the YMCA and the top of the Oasis sign. It was everything he needed: at least three times the size of our room with plenty of light and a wall with about a hundred nails protruding. “We can hang the necklaces there,” he said.

“We?”

“Of course,” he said. “You can work here too. It will be our space. You can start drawing again.”

“The first drawing will be of Pigman,” I said. “We owe him a lot. And don’t worry about the money. We’ll get it.”

Not long after, I found a 26-volume set of the complete Henry James for next to nothing. It was in perfect condition. I knew a customer at Scribner’s who would want it. I cleared over $100. Slipping five $20 bills in a sock, I tied a ribbon around it and gave it to Robert. He opened it, saying, “I don’t know how you do it.”

Robert gave the money to Pigman, and set to cleaning out the front half of the loft. It was a big job. I would stop in after work and he would be standing knee-deep in the center of Pigman’s incomprehensible debris: dusty fluorescent tubing, rolls of insulation, racks of expired canned goods, half-empty bottles of unidentified cleaning fluids, vacuum cleaner bags, stacks of bent Venetian blinds, moldy boxes spilling over with decades of tax forms, and bundles of stained National Geographics tied with red-and-white string, which I snapped up to braid for bracelets.

He cleared, scrubbed and painted the space. We borrowed buckets from the hotel, filled them with water and carted them over. When we were finished, we stood together in silence, imagining the possibilities. We’d never had so much light. We scavenged for a mattress, worktables and chairs. I mopped the floor with water boiled with eucalyptus on our hot plate.

The first things Robert brought over from the Chelsea were our portfolios.

Things were picking up at Max’s Kansas City. I stopped being so judgmental and got in the swing of things. Somehow I was accepted, though I never really fit in. Christmas was coming and there was a pervasive melancholy, as if everyone simultaneously remembered they had nowhere to go.

Even here, in the land of the so-called drag queens, Wayne County, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis were not to be categorized so lightly. They were performance artists, actresses and comediennes. Wayne was witty, Candy was pretty and Holly had drama, but I put my money on Jackie Curtis. In my mind, she had the most potential. She would successfully manipulate a whole conversation just to deliver one of Bette Davis’ killer lines. And she knew how to wear a housedress. With all her makeup she was a Seventies version of a Thirties starlet. Glitter on her eyelids. Glitter in the hair. Glitter face powder.

I hated glitter, and sitting with Jackie meant going home speckled all over.

Right before the holidays Jackie seemed distraught. I ordered her a snowball, a coveted unaffordable treat. It was a mound of devil’s food cake filled with vanilla ice cream and covered with shredded coconut. She sat there eating, plopping large glitter tears in the melting ice cream. Candy Darling slinked in next to her, dipping her lacquered fingernail into the dish, offering a bit of comfort with her soothing voice.

There was something especially poignant about Jackie and Candy as they embraced the imagined life of the actress. They both had aspects of Mildred Rogers, the coarse, illiterate waitress in Of Human Bondage. Candy had Kim Novak’s looks and Jackie had the delivery. Both of them were ahead of their time, but they didn’t live long enough to see the time they were ahead of.

“Pioneers without a frontier,” as Andy Warhol would say.

It snowed on Christmas night. We walked to Times Square to see the white billboard proclaiming “War is Over! If you Want It. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” It hung above the bookstall where Robert bought most of his men’s magazines, between Child’s and Benedict’s, two all-night diners.

Looking up, we were struck by the ingenuous humanity of this New York City tableau. Robert took my hand, and as the snow swirled around us I glanced at his face. He narrowed his eyes and nodded in affirmation, impressed to see artists take on 42nd Street. For me it was the message. For Robert, the medium.

Newly inspired, we walked back to 23rd Street to look at our space. We stood at the window and looked out at the snow falling beyond the fluorescent Oasis sign with its squiggly palm tree. “Look,” he said, “it’s snowing in the desert.” I thought about a scene in Howard Hawks’ movie Scarface where Paul Muni and his girl are looking out the window at a neon sign that said “The World is Yours.” Robert squeezed my hand.

The Sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned 23. Then I turned 23.

The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather.

He wore the skulls. I wore a tie. We felt ready for the Seventies.

“It’s our decade,” he said.

Bobby Neuwirth rode into town like some easy rider. He would dismount, and the artists, musicians and poets all came together, a gathering of the tribes. He was a catalyst for action. He would breeze in and take me places, exposing me to other artists and musicians. I was a colt, but he appreciated and encouraged my awkward attempts at writing songs. I wanted to do things that affirmed his belief in me. I developed long balladic oral poems inspired by storytellers like Blind Willie McTell and Hank Williams.

On June 5th, 1970, he took me to the Fillmore East to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It was really not my kind of band, but I was moved to see Neil Young, since his song “Ohio” had made a great impression on me. It seemed to crystallize the role of the artist as a responsible commentator, as it paid homage to the four young Kent State students who lost their lives in the name of peace.

Afterward we drove up to Woodstock, where the Band was recording Stage Fright. Todd Rundgren was the engineer. Robbie Robertson was hard at work, concentrating on the song “Medicine Man.” Mostly everyone else drifted off toward some hard-core partying. I sat up and talked with Todd until dawn, and we found that we both had Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, roots. My grandparents had lived close to where he was born and raised. We were also oddly similar — sober, work-driven, judgmental, idiosyncratic wallflowers.

Bobby continued to open up his world to me. Through him I had met Todd, the artists Brice Marden and Larry Poons, and the musicians Billy Swan, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Roger McGuinn and Kris Kristofferson. Like a flock of geese, they veered toward the Chelsea Hotel, awaiting the arrival of Janis Joplin. The only credential that gave me entrance to the private world of these people was Bobby’s word, and his word was undisputable. He introduced me to Janis as “the Poet,” and from then on that’s what Janis always called me.

We all went to see Janis play in Central Park at the Wollman Rink. The concert was sold out, but great crowds were spread out over the surrounding rocks. I stood with Bobby on the side of the stage mesmerized by her electric energy. It suddenly began to pour, followed by thunder and lightning, and the stage was cleared. Unable to continue, the roadies began to break down the equipment. The people, refusing to leave, began to boo. Janis was distraught. “They’re booing me, man,” she cried to Bobby. Bobby brushed the hair out of her eyes. “They’re not booing you, darling,” he said. “They’re booing the rain.”

The intense community of musicians staying at the Chelsea then would often find their way into Janis’ suite with their acoustic guitars. I was privy to the process as they worked on songs for her new album. Janis was the queen of the radiating wheel, sitting in her easy chair with a bottle of Southern Comfort, even in the afternoon. Michael Pollard was usually by her side. They were like adoring twins, both with the same speech patterns, punctuating each sentence with “man.” I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.

Toward the middle of July, I made my last payment on my first guitar. Held in layaway in a pawnshop on Eighth Avenue, it was a little Martin acoustic. It had a bluebird decal on its top, and a strap made of multicolored braid. I bought a Bob Dylan songbook and learned a few simple chords. At first they didn’t sound too bad, but the more I played, the worse it sounded. I didn’t realize you had to tune a guitar. Then it occurred to me that whenever it got out of tune, I could find a musician and ask them if they wanted to play it. There were plenty of musicians at the Chelsea.

I had written “Fire of Unknown Origin” as a poem, but after I met Bobby, I turned it into my first song. I struggled to find some chords to accompany it on guitar, and sang it for Robert. Death comes sweeping down the hallway in a lady’s dress/Death comes riding up the highway in its Sunday best/Death comes I can’t do nothing/Death goes there must be something that remains/A fire of unknown origin took my baby away.

When Janis Joplin returned in August for her rain date in Central Park, she seemed extremely happy. She was looking forward to recording, and came into town resplendent in magenta, pink and purple feather boas. She wore them everywhere. The concert was a great success, and afterward we all went to the Remington, an artists’ bar near lower Broadway. The tables were crowded with her entourage: Michael Pollard, Sally Grossman (who was the girl in the red dress on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home), Brice Marden and the actress Tuesday Weld. The jukebox was playing Charley Pride. Janis spent most of the party with a good-looking guy she was attracted to, but just before closing time he ducked out with one of the prettier hangers-on. Janis was devastated. “This always happens to me, man. Just another night alone,” she sobbed on Bobby’s shoulder.

Bobby asked me to get her to the Chelsea and to keep an eye on her. I took Janis back to her room, and sat with her while she bemoaned her fate. Before I left, I told her that I’d made a little song for her, and sang it to her. I was working real hard/To show the world what I could do/Oh, I guess I never dreamed/I’d have to/World spins some photographs/How I love to laugh when the crowd laughs/While love slips through/A theatre that is full/But oh, baby/When the crowd goes home/And I turn in and I realize I’m alone/I can’t believe/I had to sacrifice you.

She said, “That’s me, man. That’s my song.” As I was leaving, she looked in the mirror, adjusting her boas. “How do I look, man?”

“Like a pearl,” I answered. “A pearl of a girl.”

Links

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Patti Smith: Just Kids

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s