I just finished listening to Patti Smith read her book, Just Kids. I love life journey stories. I love hearing how people I respect and admire traveled to the place that I (along with millions of others) got to discover them. This is the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and how they became those people we know (or think we know); immensely talented artists with incredibly strong voices that influenced us (and continue to influence us). And, I consumed the audio version with Patti Smith reading her work. Such an immense treat to hear an author read their own book.
It’s always a curiousity for me when the moment of magic happens. How do “normal” people with a voice become “famous” people with a voice. It seems for so many of these uber important, uber famous there’s a moment when they get introduced to influencers and the influencers take them those last few steps on to fame. That’s what happened to Smith and Mapplethorpe. When the author Robin Carr speaks of her own success, she calls it “The thirty year overnight success story.” There’s something similar here. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe spent nearly two decades living in New York City and working toward being and becoming. You see, they were doing the work of finding their voices and becoming the personification of those voices for decades. They were showing up and producing art day after day, month after month, year after year. They were putting their stuff out into the world. They were meeting people. Eventually, they became “like” the people they met. They found their place and space and voice.
I have a personal connection, in an Artist Date sort of way. Back in the late 80s, Mapplethorpe received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for a show that was touring. When it was mounted in Cincinnati, OH, the gallery was sued with obscenity charges because of their instillation of Mapplethorpe photographs. I was driving through the area from Florida up to a summer stock gig in Indiana and made a detour into Cincinnati so that I could attend the exhibit. They had a big glass jar on one of the counters asking for donations to help defray the legal costs and, while I was young and a rather poor musician at the time, I dropped a twenty into the jar. While not much, it represented a lot to me.
There’s a line Smith wrote, after Mapplethorpe died, about his death that really moved me. Smith was talking about gathering a few items that Mapplethorpe had collected (they’d always collected interesting bits and pieces that became influences and art) and about them she wrote: “…[things] given to me by the man who loved Michelangelo.” It’s such a beautiful line and the moment in the book is also lovely because it ties their meeting and their early years to his last moments. That even though they’d become so much, they remained just those kids who had met on the streets of New York, built a life together, and helped one another become the voices we know them as, voices that defined them and, by extension, us. The work of artists influences us, it is given to us.
Thanks, Patti, for letting me spend a dozen hours with you.