Thursday, 10 August 2017

we contained opposing principles

In 1975, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were drinking coffee at The Pink Teacup in Greenwich Village. Robert stood up suddenly, and said, “Let’s get out of here.” Patti followed him as he ran down the street shouting, “The light! We can’t lose the light!”

They went back to their friend’s apartment and made history. That afternoon, Patti Smith’s iconic ‘Horses’ cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti wore a white shirt and a blazer draped lackadaisically over her shoulder, in a pose that subtly represented the attitude of punk.

This was by no means the first collaboration between Patti and Robert. It is just one of the many stories of their friendship that has been told and retold; romanticised, mythologised, idolised. How they came to know each other has been described in similar terms. Patti sets the record straight about their first few encounters in her memoir, ‘Just Kids.’ The friends and lovers met in 1967, when New York City came alive with the vibrancy of the youthquake and Andy Warhol’s Factory. Patti had arrived in Brooklyn with no money and nowhere to stay. Her friends were no longer staying at the address they had given her. Robert was living there instead.

They didn’t meet again until Robert came into the shop where Patti worked and bought her favourite necklace. In ‘Just Kids’, Patti recalls how she told him, “Don’t give it to any girl but me.” Yet it was the third meeting that cemented their friendship, when Robert saved Patti from a date by pretending to be her boyfriend; their first collaboration. This particular meeting, Patti and Robert wandered around the East Village. Patti told Robert childhood stories and he told her that he was planning on dropping acid later. Robert found a place for them to spend the night and they read books on Dada and Surrealism before falling asleep in each others arms.

The intimacy and artistic nature of their third meeting was woven through the rest of their friendship, which is documented in photographs, poems and Patti’s best-selling memoir, ‘Just Kids.’ Defined by their unruly hair, mismatched jewellery and black clothes, the pair exemplified bohemia.  Ambitious and romantic, they moved into the cheapest room in the Chelsea Hotel to be around other artists. They inhaled the atmosphere that the late hotel is now famous for. The chaotic and drug-fuelled lifestyles of their neighbours provided inspiration, but Patti and Robert were not wild child hipper-than-thou Warhol worshippers. They were timeless dreamers trying to forge their way in the world through their art.

Beginning as starving artists and going on to achieve great success, their life together seems like a rags to riches fairytale. However, Patti’s memoir shows the gritty reality of living in New York City with no money; having to worry about being able to afford food or shelter. In the early days, they sacrificed everything they had to create art. Their unshakeable faith in each other’s creativity aided their eventual success.

By the late ‘70s, a decade after they met, Patti Smith was an international rock star and Robert Mapplethorpe was shocking the nation with the S&M-inspired photography that he is best known for. In 1979, Patti left New York and drifted apart from Robert. Robert Mapplethorpe died in 1989, but in Patti’s memoir the pair will always be just kids, a pair of creative misfits trying to beat the odds with art and love. 

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