Q&A: Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe, Jesus Christ, Poetry Vs. Lyrics, and the Death of Kurt Cobain

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Q&A: Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe, Jesus Christ, Poetry Vs. Lyrics, and the Death of Kurt Cobain

  • Q&A: Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe, Jesus Christ, Poetry Vs. Lyrics, and the Death of Kurt Cobain

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    Robert Mapplethorpe/Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation/Henry Art Gallery
    Polaroids: Mapplethorpe, a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe's early photos is showing at the Henry Art Gallery through January 30.
    Twenty years after the death of friend and former lover, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, punk rock pioneer Patti Smith has released Just Kids, dating back to the couple's bohemian, hardly-fed days in late-'60s New York City. Smith will read from Just Kids, her poetry, and perform a few songs at Benaroya Hall on Monday, Jan. 25.

    I interrupted Smith at her home in New York, recently, while she was reading Robert Bolano's 2666. Here's what we talked about:

    Were you involved in a romantic relationship while you were writing this book?

    I originally started this book while my husband was alive. In the greater part of the book, I have lived alone.

    Was it harder writing about this intimate relationship while your husband was alive?

    That's an interesting question. I don't know. We had a lifelong friendship, but our deeply romantic relationship was a long time ago. The book is really focused on youth and art. I think somehow I would have found a way to write it.

    Did Mapplethorpe have any idea you would write a book about the two of you?

    Well, the day before he died, he asked me if I would write it. He wasn't completely convinced that he would be remembered. He knew that I would do well by him. I know that I was extremely important to him, even if his persuasion wound up that he was basically homosexual. I promised him less than 24 hours before he died that I would write it.

    You, Mapplethorpe, and even Andy Warhol--who is discussed at length in your book--were religious people. But I don't think most people associate The Factory or the '70s punk scene with God. Was there more spirituality in those circles than history gives them credit for?

    I think that people are so preoccupied with religion. I don't think any of us were religious, in that we weren't attached to any particular church. I think all of us question things as artists through history; especially the story of Christ really lends itself to creative expression. I mean, when you think about it, almost every great artists has brought Christ into their work.

    I've always had my own relationship with God. If one is going to judge people by whether they have a specific church, we might have all failed.

    After Kurt Cobain's suicide, you evoked Mapplethorpe's fight with AIDS as why you had "less patience" for Cobain's suicide (in an interview). You don't write about Lee Crabtree's suicide the same way in your book. Have your feelings changed in that area?

    I didn't feel that I could really comment a whole lot about that. Lee Crabtree [a musician who had worked with The Fugs] has sort of been forgotten in the pantheon of musicians of that period. And the main reason I even spoke about Lee Crabtree, I did work with him, but also so he wouldn't be forgotten.

    My reaction to Kurt Cobain was much more emotional. I was heartbroken when he committed suicide. I loved Nirvana. And I knew that Kurt Cobain was very fond of my husband [the late guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith] and the MC5. We felt so badly. We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some positive effect on him. Seeing Robert struggling for his life, and doing everything to live, and then seeing this very gifted boy kill himself was painful to factor.

    Also, I'm old enough to be Kurt Cobain's mom. It's like imagining a son do that. It's like having a spiritual son, 'cause I liked his work so much. I felt a kinship with his work.

    You speak well and repeatedly of John Coltrane's records from the '60s in Just Kids. Do they possess something that today's records do not?

    Well, I feel like Coltrane, of course he was an innovator and invented a whole style and a way of improvisation that we all draw from now. But I think the most interesting thing about Coltrane, besides his tone and his sense of improvisation, was his deep spiritual center. You really felt his relationship with God in his playing.

    You can listen to a virtuoso; you might think, "Wow, that person plays really great." But Coltrane has a different dimension. He brought God into his playing. I always feel that when I hear him. There's nobody like Coltrane.

    Do you still listen to the Rolling Stones?

    Not as much as I used to. If I'm somewhere and hear a Rolling Stones song come over the radio, it's still exciting. I don't sit around listening to them. I listen to a lot of opera records. A lot of Glenn Gould. If I'm in a car, and the Rolling Stones, you know -- "Gimmie Shelter" or "Under My Thumb," and something comes on and it's "19th Nervous Breakdown" -- it's still exciting.

    You speak of Brian Jones very lovingly. Did you lose interest in the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones' death?

    They never seemed exactly the same. But they wrote a lot of great songs after Brian Jones' death. So, I continued to, you know, feel loyalty to the Stones. Mick Jagger is a great performer, and Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts a great drummer. Maybe I didn't have the same youthful affection. Maybe I didn't have the same adolescent crush. But they're great. Their music is great. And they've written some of the greatest rock and roll songs ever. I greatly appreciate them.

    I thought it was really interesting that you and Mapplethorpe were each working on art, and each of you ended up going completely different directions from where you started (Smith to music, Mapplethorpe to photography).

    Actually, I didn't even think about that until you just said it. I know it's obvious. But truthfully I didn't even think about that. We just, you know, fate has its own design.

    Do you consider your songs to be poems set to music?

    No, I really consider them lyrics. I know that some of my lyrics are poetic. When I'm writing lyrics, I have a certain mission. I'm trying to communicate or meld with the music. But I'm also trying to write something that will communicate with the people, which will be something that will work in performance that people will relate to when they hear it.

    But when I'm working on poetry, it's not collaborative. And I don't have such a humanistic sense, as sometimes poetry is less communicative. One's goal is different. It's more insular. You know, like Jim Morrison, his lyrics were extremely poetic. But when he wrote his poems, they were his own animal.

    You mention the Vietnam War, which was at its height during the first half of your book, but it doesn't sound like the two of you were participating strongly or publicly in your opposition of it, which is in stark contrast to your open opposition to the war in Iraq. Was this simply a matter of you becoming more politically aware as you got older?

    Probably. I mean, when I was young, of course I was opposed to Vietnam. Robert was not political. Robert was political in his own way. He had a military scholarship. He didn't believe in the Vietnam War. He dropped out, he lost his scholarship; so that perhaps was Robert's political move. I mean, it changed his whole life when he did that.

    When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I just think it demoralized me so much. I just sort of retreated. But as I got older, I found a way to use my voice politically. I was just too young, and also trying to figure out who I was.

     
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