Chicago native and "grandmother of punk rock" Patti Smith spoke at the Harold Washington Library Sunday about her new book "Just Kids," a memoir of her early days in New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during the late sixties and seventies. The audience exceeded the capacity of the auditorium and hundreds of fans were turned away at the door.
At 64, Smith looked like she has for decades, sporting a black knit cap over her long unruly hair, scuffed boots, old jeans and oversize black blazer. A whole new generation of followers in their 20s sat in the audience along with the more middle-aged crowd.
Smith promised Mapplethorpe she would write a book about their life together the day he died of AIDS on March 9, 1989. The ensuing deaths of her husband, pianist, brother and the grief that followed prevented her from pursuing the project until now--but she kept her promise.
"I kept some almost teenage style diaries where I kept notes of everything I did each day," Smith said of the scores of journals and letters from that time. Things like the sandwich she had for lunch or the fact she met Janis Joplin that day.
Smith explained that she came to New York after abandoning a teachers college and a factory job in South Jersey. She was homeless for weeks while looking for work. A chance meeting with the young and penniless Mapplethorpe led to years together of mutual physical, financial and spiritual support while developing their talents. Mapplethorpe told his suburban Catholic parents they were married.
The two would eventually find themselves part of the celebrated Andy Warhol contingent of poets, writers, artists, rock and roll musicians in a world of changing sexual politics.
During a particularly scarce time, Smith told the audience how she scrounged together 55 cents for her favorite cheese and mustard sandwich from the shop down the street. As she was trying to extract it from the machine, she saw the price had been raised 10 cents.
A voice behind her said "Can I help you?" It was poet Allen Ginsberg who put the extra dime in the machine and fronted her for a cup of tea. As they ate together, Smith mentioned something that made him look up and say, "You mean you're a girl?" They developed a good friendship after that.
Those were the days when New York's Chelsea Hotel housed some of the most influential artists of the day. Smith and Mapplethorpe somehow put together the money to rent a small room there. It was here Smith met lifelong friend, writer William S. Burroughs.
"He was a real gentleman and very kind to me," Smith said. "I had such a crush on him. He would say, 'My dear, I am a homosexual.' I can handle it, I told him."
In later years when Smith moved back to New York after her husband's death, Burroughs threw a dinner party in her honor. "It was me and nine guys but he let me sit next to him," she said.
With the success of her seminal "Horses" album, Smith became famous before Mapplethorpe, something he would often remind her of without any jealousy or envy.
They eventually took separate paths but remained close. Mapplethorpe gained fame with his dramatic black and white portraits about the New York S&M scene among other subjects.
Smith went on to record a total of twelve albums and write six books. In 2002, the Andy Warhol museum launched a retrospective exhibit of her drawings, silk screens and photographs.
In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded her highest honor award to an artist by the French Republic. In 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Just Kids" is in its third week on the New York Times' Bestsellers list. "It's the biggest success I've ever had in writing," Smith said. "Leave it to Robert."
Listen to Smith's conversation here.
Check out some photos of the event here:
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