Patti Smith, writer, talks of learning to love books in Philly

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Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island. She writes of her friendship and love affair with the photographer Mapplethorpe in "Just Kids," which won the National Book Award. To this day, she says, "I see with his eyes."

When Patti Smith won the National Book Award last month for Just Kids, her tenderly evocative memoir of her friendship and love affair with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in late-'60s-early-'70s New York, the poet-rocker made an impassioned plea to the big shots of the publishing world.

Recalling the years she spent working as a clerk at Scribner's bookstore in Manhattan, Smith said: "I dreamed of having a book of my own, or writing one that I could put on a shelf. Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don't abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book."

That plea "just came out," Smith, who will read from Just Kids at the Free Library on Wednesday, said of her unprepared remarks, speaking on the phone from her home in Manhattan last week.

"Being a recording artist, I've seen what's happened in the music business, with the death of vinyl, and we're moving towards the death of the CD. And I feel very protective of the book because I love books so much. . . . I can't imagine not being able to hold Moby-Dick in my hands."

Smith, who's 63, was born in Chicago, and lived in Germantown until she was about 10, when her parents moved to Deptford. She remembers first falling in love with books in the early 1950s, when her mother would take her to Leary's Book Store at Ninth and Market Streets in Center City.

"Old Mr. Leary, I would give him a quarter and he would give me a shopping bag and let me fill it with children's books," she says. "I still have some of those books."

In Just Kids, Smith writes of the transformative experience of a family bus trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she was 12. There she first laid eyes on "languorous Modiglianis" and "elegantly still subjects of Sargent and Thomas Eakins" and was taken aback by the "brutal confidence" of Picasso.

"I'm certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping 12-year-old, all arms and legs," she writes in Just Kids, which is just out in paperback (Ecco, $16).

"But, secretly, I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not."

Just Kids is peopled with fabulous personages, from playwright Sam Shepard to the eccentric folklorist Harry Smith (no relation), who, like Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe, lived at Manhattan's fabled Chelsea Hotel.

Allen Ginsberg mistakes her for a boy and tries to pick her up at a Horn & Hardart. And Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick turn up at the El Quixote restaurant next door to the Chelsea.

But the book is focused on the coming-of-artistic-age relationship between Mapplethorpe and Smith. Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, was both celebrated and decried for his black-and-white portraits, often depicting gay men in sadomasochistic activity. Smith, the "godmother of punk," is also a poet, photographer, and visual artist.

Before she moved to New York in 1967 after attending Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) for a year, Smith says she was "practically a hick. I didn't know much about anything except books. I was naive about what was happening culturally.

"Because, you know, after leaving Philadelphia, I was brought up in South Jersey, which was not the cultural center of the world. I had a great high school experience, thanks to the great Philadelphia radio, with DJs like Georgie Woods and Jerry Blavat. I had a great musical education . . . I knew about Coltrane and Albert Ayler and Roland Kirk. But I wasn't really aware of the intense cultural revolution going on in our country. I had some catching up to do."

After meeting Mapplethorpe, who grew up on Long Island, the duo learned together.

The pair take the subway to Coney Island. They survive on Dinty Moore beef stew and lettuce soup, and when they can't afford two tickets to the museum, one goes in and tells the other what he or she saw.

"Nobody sees like us, Patti," Mapplethorpe tells Smith.

"He said that quite a bit," Smith said, a day after she flew back from Madrid where she attended a conference on Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño.

Still, she adds, "I see with his eyes, I see what work he would like. Especially when I'm doing a drawing or taking a photograph, and something is out of kilter. I can shift over to his point of view."

Mapplethorpe, whose many portraits of Smith include the iconic album cover of her 1975 debut, Horses, "knew I comprehended his work, so affirmation from either one of us to the other was even more valuable."

Smith says she has a similar relationship, musically, with her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye. "Robert and I weren't school art stars or anything. When you're isolated, young, and have no money, it was very valuable to our evolution to have each other. It was very inspirational and confidence building."

While she was living with her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, in Detroit in the 1980s, and largely avoiding the music business, Smith wrote four unpublished books. "Everything from mystical travel to crime stories," she says. "Those books gave me the confidence to write this one." In 1989, she visited Mapplethorpe in New York, when he was near death, and asked if there was anything she could do for him.

"One of the things he asked me was to tell our story. He said, 'You have to.' And I said, 'All right, I will.' "

Smith started in the early 1990s, but her husband became ill and died in 1994. With two children to raise - son Jackson and daughter Jesse, now grown and both musicians - and bills to pay, she returned to touring and recording.

She struggled to find her prose voice while writing in fits and starts. "It was a difficult book to write. Because it was sad, but also because it felt difficult to write continually about myself. . . . I went back and forth with it until the last year or two. I knew it was time and wrestled it to the ground."

"The main purpose of the book," she says, "is to keep my promise to Robert. But the second is to give Robert to the people as a human being. Not simply as a controversial photographer who died of AIDS. He was that, but that's only a segment of who Robert is. So that was my duty: to give people Robert as a young man and an evolving artist."

Smith said she was completely surprised and "really, really happy" to win the National Book Award. She hopes to write a parallel book about the same time period, but not focused on Mapplethorpe. "Life is like cubism, you know?" she says. "While [her life with Mapplethorpe] was happening, a thousand other things were happening. So I could write about that time period in three different ways."

Now she has another intriguing project: a detective story. She's a serious fan of everything from Sherlock Holmes to Henning Mankell's Swedish detective Kurt Wallander to Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

She won't divulge details, but provides clues as to what kind of crime fiction Patti Smith might write. "I like the idea of a man of action who's also a genius at chess," she says. "Like, if you could imagine if Marcel Duchamp was also a prizefighter."

And never fear, the galvanic rock heroine hasn't gone entirely literary. She's been at work on new material, largely recorded in Europe where she spends about half of the year. "I'm an American, I love my country," she says, but is more accepted in Europe. "It doesn't bother them that I'm an artist and a writer and a performer. They actually understand that you can play rock-and-roll and have a fairly decent IQ."

Her first album since 2007's Twelve will feature her core band of Kaye, Jay Dee Dougherty on drums, and Tony Shanahan on bass, plus fellow South Jersey punk luminary Tom Verlaine on guitar. The album will be finished early next year, and out sometime in 2011.

"The book has waylaid the record," she says. "But that's OK. Many records waylaid the book."

 


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.