God willing, we all get older and the young get stronger. Still, it is something of a shock to realize that Patti Smith is going to be 65 next year and that just 10 months ago she became Meg White's mother-in-law.
Uh-huh, that Meg White, she of the Sphinx-like demeanour behind the drums in the White Stripes. And, yes, that Patti Smith. Skinny punk priestess from the South Jersey shore with the Keith Richards hair. Pal of Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs, Springsteen and Dylan. Creator of the seminal Horses album where high-energy garage rock (G-L-O-R-I-A!) ponied up with powerhouse poetry ("Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine'). Lover of Sam Shepard and Jim Carroll, Robert Mapplethorpe and that short guy who played keyboards and bass in Blue Oyster Cult.
There was a time (and, really, was it that long ago?) when neither Smith's fans nor Smith herself could have imagined senior citizenship. For the fans, it was a case of hubris: With the right drugs and music, why can't we be 25 forever? For Smith, it had to do with fate. Her "dreamy somnambulant childhood" and adolescence were consumed as much by the fevers of pneumonia and tuberculosis, mumps, chicken pox and umpteen allergies as the fires of her imagination. "I was very romantic about it," she confessed the other morning on the phone from her studio in Manhattan. "I thought, 'I'll never make it to 30.'" Forty-five years after leaving Deptford Township, her voice still carries the raspy tones of New Jersey yawp. "But now that I'm here, I'm hoping for real longevity . . . Now I want to be 100. I need to live a long time because I'm still developing my abilities."
Certainly Patricia Lee Smith is still rocking. Mere hours before our conversation she and her band (along with Toronto's Metric) had closed down a raucous Fashion Week party at New York's Milk Studios. "It was fantastic," she observed, while acknowledging it was "an uncharacteristically late performance" for someone who, at 63, prefers to be in bed by 11 p.m. so she can be sufficiently rested for the writing she likes to do early each morning.
This dedication to routine recently resulted in the publication of a 284-page memoir about Smith's pre-fame life with Mapplethorpe, the photographic provocateur who, had he not died of AIDS in March 1989, would be the same age Smith is today. Called Just Kids, it's a lovely and loving, at times sweet, at times harrowing, evocation of a long-vanished/never-to-recur era when two penniless youngsters of the working-class, armed only with talent, dreams and a knack for shoplifting, could bunk up in New York's Chelsea Hotel ("a doll's house in the Twilight Zone") and make a boho go of it. Which they did in 1969.
Lots of other characters find their way into Smith's remarkably clear-eyed, often amusing reminiscence - Shepard (a.k.a. Slim Shadow), Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson, Harry K. Smith and Bob Neuwirth, among them - but mostly it's the Robert and Patti Show. Occasionally the yarns use a curiously formal, 19th-century-flavoured diction ("All was still save the sound of the television;" "I vexed my teachers;" "I was humbled by nature") that harkens to the Victorian children's stories and verse and Louisa May Alcott novels that Smith, the oldest of four siblings, devoured in the 1950s.
The book represents the fulfilment of a promise Smith made to Mapplethorpe shortly before his death. It was Smith in their younger days who encouraged Mapplethorpe to forsake the necklace-making and mixed-media creations he initially favoured to dedicate himself to photography. Likewise, it was Mapplethorpe who urged Smith to become a public performer, first as a poet, then as a singer-songwriter.
" 'You should let people hear you,' he said as he always did," she writes.
"'You're hearing me. That's enough.'
'I want everyone to hear you.'"
Among the many surprises in Just Kids is the relative paucity of its depictions of drug use, at least by Smith and Mapplethorpe (who in his last years developed a fierce appetite for cocaine).
To be sure, Mapplethorpe "loved his pot," Smith recalled, "and liked to take acid occasionally. But mostly, unless a friend helped out, we didn't have the money for it." Also: "I was sort of a reverse rebel. I hated peer pressure. I hated in high school people saying, 'Have a beer, have a beer.' I hated in the early days in New York when we were told, 'You have to smoke pot; you have to smoke pot if you want to be one of us.' Well, I don't want to be one of anybody." Besides, "I wasn't really interested in messing up my health . . . I mean, I experimented with things but I was very careful because," she laughed, "I didn't want to die."
Smith actually missed experiencing first-hand Mapplethorpe's own ascent to fame and notoriety, an ascent that began, in fact, in 1975 when Arista Records used Mapplethorpe's now-iconic portrait of Smith for the dust-jacket cover of Horses. Partly, this was the result of Mapplethorpe finally and wholeheartedly accepting the homosexuality he'd tried, as a bowl-legged, tousle-haired Catholic boy from Long Island, to suppress or displace. Partly, too it came from Smith's decision in 1979 to leave New York to follow her husband, legendary MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, to his hometown of Detroit and the rigours of parenthood. The exodus from her beloved Manhattan became a 15-year semi-retirement. Still, her connection with Mapplethorpe never waned; in 1987, a weak, dying Mapplethorpe travelled to Los Angeles to photograph Smith for the cover of Dream of Life.
Smith actually expected to have finished Just Kids years ago, certainly before the two-decade anniversary of Mapplethorpe's death. But raising two children mostly as a single mother has a way of disrupting the best of intentions. Which is what happened in 1994 with Fred Smith's sudden death at 45. Her son, Jackson, is now 27 - a rock musician, he married Meg White last May in the Nashville backyard of White's ex-husband, Jack - and her daughter, Jesse, is 22. One month after Smith's death, Smith's younger brother, Todd, was felled as well, by a stroke. Since then both Smith's father, Grant, and mother, Beverley, have died. "Blessed on one side, very rocky on the other, that's been my life," Smith said.
Writing the memoir proved so laborious that after its completion, Smith thought she'd never make another foray into long-form autobiography. Now this likely (and happily) won't be the case. "I wrote Just Kids almost with blinders on because I kept pulling myself back into the world of Robert and me. That was the mission for this book. But there are other things one could write about that were going on simultaneously. I mean, life is like Cubism; it isn't flat; it's not linear." She paused. "So, yes, I am writing. I woke up early this morning, in fact, and wrote another section. But it's without any specific design. I'm writing just to see what comes out."
"Everything," she said, "seems possible."