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'Just Kids': Punk Icon Patti Smith Looks Back
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. PATTI SMITH (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible)
GROSS: That's Patti Smith's first studio recording, a single she made in
1974, in Jimi Hendrix's studio, Electric Lady. Before Patti Smith earned
the name the godmother of punk, she was - well, that's the subject of
her new memoir, "Just Kids." It's about growing up in New Jersey, moving
to New York in 1967, and slowly evolving into a poet, songwriter and
The book revolves around her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, who
she met just after she got to New York. They became soul mates, both
aspiring to be artists. She became famous first. The album that made her
famous, "Horses," had an iconic photo of her taken by Mapplethorpe. He
later became known for his erotic and sadomasochistic photos of gay men.
He died of AIDS in 1989.
Patti Smith, welcome back to FRESH AIR. At the beginning of your memoir,
we get a glimpse of how different your life might have been. In 1966,
when you were about 20, and you were going to Glassboro State College,
which is now Rowan University, you were studying to be a teacher, you
got pregnant by a boy who was 17, a boy you describe as even more callow
than you were.
So you were pregnant and you decided to have the baby and give it up for
adoption. When you were trying to figure out what to do, what did you
think your life would have been like at that time if you'd decided to
keep the baby?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I was a lower-middle-class kid. My family had no money.
There was no room in our small house, where there were already four
kids, including myself, living. I would have had to get a job in a
factory, ask my mother to help me, and she was already overworked. She
was a waitress. It would've been difficult for everyone, I think, and
the child would have had no father. I felt that I just wasn't ready as a
human being, I wasn't prepared, and that although I knew that I would be
responsible and loving, that I just was not equipped to embark on that
GROSS: I think that this pregnancy was a turning point in your life and
contributed to your decision to leave college, give up on the idea of
being a teacher and go to New York. It's in New York that you met Robert
Mapplethorpe, and you know, you changed the course of each other's
lives. Would you tell the story of how you met Robert Mapplethorpe?
Ms. SMITH: Well, my first meeting was very simple. I had some friends at
Pratt Institute, people that went to my high school that had the means
to go to art school, and I was looking for them, hoping for a little
shelter since I had nowhere to sleep that night, but when I went to
visit them, they had moved, and the boy that answered the door didn't
know where my friends had moved and said, well, go in there and maybe my
roommate will know where they are.
And I went in a room, and there was a boy sleeping, lying on a little
iron bed and just with a mass of dark curls, and as soon as I walked in,
he awoke and looked at me and smiled. And then I talked, and he knew
where my friends had lived.
But the thing that I remember, the very first impression I have of
Robert is waking up and smiling.
GROSS: Then he helped bail you out of a possibly difficult situation.
Ms. SMITH: Yes, he was my rescuer because, I mean, it might seem
contradictory that, you know, a girl has the experience that I had would
still be extremely inexperienced in a dating situation, but I was. I had
very little experience and I had never dated an older man. He was
probably, like, under 30, but he seemed like a grownup to me.
And I was so hungry. I hadn't eaten in a few days, and my boss was
friendly with him. He was a science fiction writer, and he asked me to
go to dinner after work at Brentano's, and we walked all the way to
Tompkins Square Park and sat on a bench, and I kept wishing it would
just end, and then he asked me to come up to his apartment, which was
nearby, and have a cocktail, and I thought, oh man, this is it, I'm -
you know, I was just imagining, you know, what's going to happen. I'm
not going to be able to get away. You know, he's going to try to get me
drunk. I'm going to get raped.
I mean, this poor guy. I mean, I'm sure he wasn't so horrible, but I was
just in a - well, I was afraid, and I was thinking about what should I
do. Should I run? And then I looked, and as if an answer to a prayer,
here comes walking down the path this boy who I had just briefly met now
twice and walking alone, you know, in full - you know, just dressed like
1967 in a sheepskin vest and a lot of love beads with long, curly hair,
looked a bit like Tim Buckley.
And I just impulsively ran up to him and said, do you remember me? And
he said yes, and I said, will you just pretend you're my boyfriend? And
he said sure. And I dragged him over to the science fiction guy, and I
said, this is my boyfriend, he's really mad, and I have to go home now.
And the guy looked at me like I was crazy, and I said to Robert: run.
And he grabbed my hand and we ran away.
And he did. He rescued me. In my mind, he rescued me, and he was my
knight ever since.
GROSS: At some point you realized that Mapplethorpe was gay. At some
point he realized that he was gay, and you found out in 1968, and he
said to you that he was going to San Francisco and that if you didn't
come with him, he'd turn homosexual. It sounds like he didn't want to be
gay at that moment, that he was hoping you'd help save him from that.
Ms. SMITH: Well, I don't think that it was he wanted me to save him. I
just - he just didn't want our relationship to end. I mean, I think that
it was scary territory for Robert, but obviously he felt this in his
I had no inkling that Robert was suffering this conflict. I knew
something was wrong and something was bothering him and that he had
become increasingly moodier, and there was something that he couldn't
communicate with me, and this frustrated me because we were so open with
one another, but it was just too painful for him to tell me. And also,
one had to consider a factor that he came from a very intense Catholic
military family, and it wasn't easy for him to lay out his inner world
GROSS: How did it affect his relationship with you when he came to terms
with being gay and had lovers and eventually had a long-time lover? Were
you able to stay as close, even though the relationship had changed?
Ms. SMITH: Oh, Robert and I always were just as close. I mean, we had to
work out, obviously, the physical aspect of our relationship, and it was
really me who, in the end, severed the physical aspect of our
relationship because - well, for various reasons, because I just tend to
be monogamous, and there was always the concern about social disease.
I mean, we had - I had gotten gonorrhea from him, and I - it wasn't even
the social disease that horrified me as much as the needle regimen that
you had to receive to get rid of it, and I had a terrible fear and
phobia of things like that. And you know, in the end, we worked that
out, I mean, because we were so close and our love for each other was so
deep that the absence of - and we were still physical with one another.
He was always very affectionate until the day he died. We were still
affectionate towards one another.
GROSS: My guest is Patti Smith. Her new memoir is called "Just Kids."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patti Smith, and her new
book is a memoir about her relationship with the late artist Robert
Mapplethorpe. It's called "Just Kids."
In your book, you write about how Mapplethorpe's work started to change
and become more sadomasochistic in its imagery, which he became quite
famous for, and you write that that imagery was bewildering and
frightening to you. You write: He couldn't share things with me because
it was so outside our realm, and that you couldn't comprehend the
brutality of his images of self-inflicted pain. It was hard for you to
match it with the boy you had met. Can you talk a little bit about - a
little bit more about your reaction to his images and what you found
disturbing and incomprehensible about it?
Ms. SMITH: Well, they're disturbing images.
GROSS: They're meant to be disturbing.
Ms. SMITH: I mean, Robert - I mean, a lot of my reaction was out of,
first of all, naivetivity(ph). I didn't know anything about that world.
I still know very little about that world, and my protective instincts
for Robert, they frightened me.
I worried that he would be hurt, or something bad would happen to him,
but he always assured me that all of these situations were controlled,
The imagery was brutal, and I had never seen anything like these images,
but I have to say, as always, after I felt that Robert was safe, I
stepped back and looked at them as work, and they were brilliant images.
I mean, some of them, there was so much blood and disorder, they had an
abstract expressionist look.
I mean, there were a few of these images that I thought were actually
brilliant, and so we were able, after I processed the subject matter, to
talk about these images as art, but I was never really curious to talk
about them in any other way, and he respected that.
GROSS: Would you describe one of the photographs that at first you found
upsetting and looking at it as art you found really brilliant?
Ms. SMITH: Well, there's a very - it's hard to describe a photograph,
but there is one of a - you know, the male genitals in a sort of
contraption. It's a close-up. It looks like a wooden contraption with
screws, and I don't know exactly how it works, but it was a wooden,
almost a frame over someone's genital area, and it was spattered in
It was like a Pollock, there was so much blood spattered over it, and
you could see some of the shininess of the blood in the photograph. I
had never seen an image like this, but it really took steps above
pornography. It just - it was taken, you know, with Robert's, you know,
classical eye and taken as a serious photograph, and it worked as art.
It worked as much as a flower or a portrait or any of the other
photographs he took. In fact, it seemed even more high couture.
So even though the image shocked and frightened me, I was able to, as I
said, step back and look at it as work, and I thought it was, you know,
a beautiful photograph.
GROSS: Now, you say in your book that your first song started as a poem,
"Fire of Unknown Origin"?
Ms. SMITH: Yes.
GROSS: So I'd like you, if you wouldn't mind, to recite the poem and
tell us how that became a song, and then we'll hear the recording of the
Ms. SMITH: I wrote it at the Chelsea Hotel, and it was just a little
song, or a little poem: Fire of unknown origin took my baby away, a fire
of unknown origin took my baby away. It took me up - just how does it
go? It took - I'm sorry...
(Singing) Fire of unknown origin took my baby away. A fire of unknown
origin took my baby away.
(Speaking) It took me up and off the highway into a fire thick and gray.
Death comes sweeping down the hallway like a ladies dress. Death comes
riding up the highway in its Sunday best. Death comes riding, death
comes creeping, death comes. There must be something that remains.
Death, it made me sick and crazy because that fire, it took my baby
Essentially, it's just a little poem, but I was listening to a lot of
early blues and these really old R&B songs, like songs like "Bacon Fat"
and just early blues songs, and I think it just came out. You know, it's
an easy - with my accent, especially my thick, South Jersey accent back
then, it was - I had such a drawl in my talking, it just seemed to
naturally go into from a fire of unknown origin to...
(Singing) A fire of unknown origin.
(Speaking) That's sort of how it happened.
GROSS: Okay, so why don't we hear the recording that you made of it, and
this is a bonus track from the reissue of your 1979 album "Wave."
(Soundbite of song, "Fire of Unknown Origin")
Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Fire of unknown origin took my baby away. Fire of
unknown origin took my baby away. (Unintelligible) fire thick and gray.
Death comes sweeping down the hallway...
GROSS: That's Patti Smith, singing the first song that she wrote, "Fire
of Unknown Origin." And you know, Patti, one of the things I find so
interesting about that song is it's about death. It's about death taking
away a lover, and when you wrote that, it was before you had lost so
many - you have lost so many people in your life, you know: your
husband, your brother, Robert Mapplethorpe, who's the subject of your
new memoir, musicians, friends. And I guess I'm interested in why that
very first song was about losing someone to death.
Ms. SMITH: I don't know. I can't remember. I wrote it so long ago that I
can't remember the genesis of it. I keep thinking that I wrote it for
Jim Morrison, but then I think I wrote it before Jim Morrison died. For
some reason I always associate it with Jim Morrison, possibly because I
could imagine Jim Morrison singing that. It's sort of like "Queen of the
Highway," you know.
(Singing) Fire of unknown origin she was - queen of the highway.
(Speaking) There's just something in the intrinsic voice of the song. I
don't know why I wrote it. Maybe it was because - as simple as the
artist Sandy Daley(ph), who lived at the Chelsea, used to wear these
long black dresses, and I often walked behind her going down the stairs
because her dress is the dress in the song: Death comes sweeping down
the hallway like a lady's dress. It's Sandy Daley's long black dress. So
I don't know what was in my mind.
GROSS: Now, I found it really interesting that before you started, like,
singing on stage, you acted in a few plays. You collaborated with Sam
Shepard, who you were very close with. You acted on stage in that, acted
on stage in something else, and you finally realized that you were
yourself on stage. It was hard for you to become somebody else. How did
that realization lead to becoming a performer?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I know from an early age that I like - well, I'm very
comfortable in front of people. When I was a young girl, I loved giving
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's great.
Ms. SMITH: I remember once I was - one of my teachers was talking about
"Moby Dick," and she was so boring, and you know, most of the kids in my
classroom were semi-illiterate, you know, and they're, like, spitting
spitballs, and I was extremely restless, and she got fed up with me, and
she said Patti Lee, if you think you can teach this better, you get up
here and teach it. And I said sure.
I was really happy. I went up there, and I laid out "Moby Dick" for
those kids in a way that, like, they comprehended "Moby Dick," you know,
and I enjoyed that, and that's sort of what made me think I could be a
good teacher, because I really didn't know practically how to make money
in the world, and I thought, well, I could have a job as a teacher
because I like talking in front of people.
And I had no - I did plays in college. I played Phaedra. I was in
musical comedy, and I did very well, but the memorization killed me. I'm
not good at memorizing, and it gave me a lot of anxiety. I hated the
makeup. I hated all that pancake makeup. I didn't really like dressing
So I liked being on stage, I just didn't like the theatrical aspect of
being in front of people.
GROSS: Patti Smith will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
memoir is called "Just Kids." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Patti Smith. Her new
memoir, "Just Kids," is about her formative years when she was becoming
a poet, songwriter and performer. Her soul mate was her fellow would-be
artist Robert Mapplethorpe who later became famous for his photographs.
He took the iconic photo of Patti Smith for her first album "Horses,"
which was released in 1975. Here's one of the best known tracks from it,
her version of Van Morrison's song "Gloria."
(Soundbite of song, "Gloria")
Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine. And I
got this crazy feeling and then I'm gonna ah-ah make her mine. Hear this
knocking on my door. Hear this knocking on my door and I look up into
the big tower clock and say, oh my God here's midnight. And my baby is
walking through the door leaning on my couch. She whispers to me and I
take the big plunge and oh, she was so good and oh, she was so fine. And
I'm gonna tell the world that I just ah-ah made her mine. And I said
darling, tell me your name, she told me her name, she whispered to me,
she told me her name and her name is, and her name is, and her name is,
and her name is G-L-O-R-I-A, G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria, G-L-
O-R-I-A Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria.
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Patti Smith.
You say that until a friend suggested that you be in a rock 'n' roll
band, it had never occurred to you. It was just like not part of your
Ms. SMITH: No. Why would it? You know, I'm not a musician. You know, I
didnât play any instrument. I didnât have any specific talents. I mean I
came from the South Jersey, Philadelphia area, and in the early '60s
everybody sang. They sang on street corners, three-part harmonies, a
cappella. I knew - most of my friends were better singers than me. There
was nothing in what I did that would give a sense that I should be in a
rock 'n' roll band. Also, girls weren't in rock 'n' roll bands. I mean
they sang but, you know, the closest thing to a rock singer - a real
rock singer that we had was Grace Slick and I certainly didnât have
Grace Slick's voice.
GROSS: So, you found the guitarist Lenny Kaye. You read an article by
him about a cappella groups and you really liked it and you found him.
You sought him out. He was working at a bookstore in the Village. If you
had not found Lenny Kaye do you think you wouldnât have been in a rock
'n' roll band, because he has been your guitarist kind of forever?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I can't say what would happen. It was really Sam
Shepard who suggested, you know, I said to Sam when Robert helped me
through Gerard Malanga to get my first reading, I said I got to do
something special because if I donât do something special Gregory's
going to, you know, throw tomatoes at me or something - Gregory Corso,
who was mentoring me not to be a boring poet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: And I said I want to do something special and Sam said well,
you have these - and I said well, I could sing a cappella songs and he
said well, do you know anybody that plays guitar? And I said well, this
fellow, Lenny Kaye, mentioned he played a little guitar. And I donât
know how I would've evolved because the thing about Lenny that made him
different from everyone else is Lenny was there to magnify my ideas. He
really - I'm not saying he was totally selfless, he had a sense of
himself, but he was completely there for me.
GROSS: You were saying that you didnât have, you know, you didnât think
of yourself as a singer per se, that your friends had better voices than
you did. But you created this new style really that was a combination of
poetry and music. It wasnât about having like a perfect singer's voice.
It was the style that you performed and the personality that you put
into it, the kind of defiance that you had in some songs, the energy.
Would you talk about what you felt you were doing early on that was
different from what you'd seen other people do?
Ms. SMITH: I think my perception of myself was really as a performer and
a communicator. You know, my - I had a mission when we recorded
"Horses." My mission was...
GROSS: That's your first album.
Ms. SMITH: My first album "Horses," my mission and the collective band
mission was really on one level to merge poetry and rock 'n' roll, but
more humanistically, to reach out to other disenfranchised people. You
know, we, in 1975, the, you know, young homosexual kids were, you know,
being disowned by their families. The kids were, you know, kids like me,
who were a little weird or a little different, were often persecuted in
their small towns. And it wasnât just, you know, because of sexual
persuasion, it was for any reason: for being an artist, for being
different, for having political views, for just wanting to be free. And
I really recorded the record to connect with these people, you know.
And also in terms of our place in rock 'n' roll, just to create some
bridge between our great artists that we had just lost, Jimi Hendrix and
Jim Morrison among them, and to create space for what I felt would be
the new guard, which I didnât really include myself. I was really
anticipating people or bands like the Clash and the Ramones.
I was anticipating in my mind that a new breed would come - Television.
A new breed would come and they would be less materialistic, more bonded
with the people and not so glamorous. That's - I didn't - I wasn't
thinking so much of music. I wasnât thinking so much of perfection or
stardom or any of that stuff. I was thinking I had this mission and I
thought I would do this record and then go back to my writing and my
drawing and, you know, return to my, you know, my somewhat abnormal-
normal life. But "Horses" took me on a whole different path.
GROSS: Is there a track from "Horses" that particularly illustrates what
you were describing as what your mission was?
Ms. SMITH: "Birdland."
Ms. SMITH: I think "Birdland" because - for various reasons, "Birdland"
was an improvisation built on an improvisation. It very, it so much
exemplifies the communication of my band, especially between Richard,
Lenny and I. And it speaks of this new breed, you know, the new
generations who will be dreaming in animation. You know, the new
generations that will race across the fields no longer presidents but
prophets. That was my - it was like my telegram to the new breed.
GROSS: Oh, let's hear it. This is "Birdland" from Patti Smith's first
(Soundbite of song, "Birdland")
Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I am helium raven and this movie is mine. So he
cried out as he stretched the sky, pushing it all out like latex
cartoon. Am I all alone in this generation? We'll just be dreaming of
animation night and day and won't let up, won't let up and I see them
coming in. Oh, I couldn't hear them before, but I hear 'em now. It's a
radar scope in all silver and all platinum lights. Moving in like black
ships, they were moving in, streams of them, and he put up his hands and
he said, it's me, it's me. I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now
please take me up. I'm helium raven waiting for you, please take me up.
Don't leave me here, the son, the sign, the cross, like the shape of a
tortured woman, the true shape of a tortured woman, the mother standing
in the doorway letting her sons no longer presidents but prophets.
They're all dreaming they're gonna bear the prophet. He's gonna run
through the fields dreaming in animation. It's all gonna split his
skull. It's gonna come out like a black bouquet shining like a fist
that's gonna shoot them up like light, like Mohammed Boxer. Take them
up, up, up, up, up, up. Oh, let's go up, up, take me up, I'll go up, I'm
going up, I'm going up. Take me up, I'm going up, I'll go up there. Go
up, go up, go up, go up, up, up, up, up, up, up. Up, up to the belly of
GROSS: That's "Birdland" from Patti Smith's album "Horses." Her new
memoir is called "Just Kids."
We'll talk more with her after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Patti Smith. Her new memoir about her formative years
as an artist and her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe is
called "Just Kids." When we left off, we were talking about her first
album, "Horses," which was released in 1975.
Robert Mapplethorpe did the very iconic photograph for the cover of
"Horses." Would you briefly describe the photo?
Ms. SMITH: Well, it's very classic photograph by Robert, very simple.
I'm standing against a white wall with a triangular shadow and dressed
in the clothes typical of myself then in just an old white shirt - a
clean, old white shirt. Sort of a black ribbon that symbolizes a tie or
a cravat, black pants, jacket slung over my shoulder, looking directly
at Robert. It has a little bit of Baudelaire, little bit of Catholic
boy, a little bit of Frank Sinatra and a lot of Robert.
GROSS: What impact do you think that photo had on how people perceived
Ms. SMITH: Well, I, you know, I donât know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: I know people really liked it. I know the record company
GROSS: They didnât? That's such a great photo. Why didnât the record
company like it?
Ms. SMITH: Because my hair was messy. Because, you know, it just it was
a little incomprehensible to them at the time. But I fought for it and
they did try to airbrush my hair, but I made sure that was fixed. People
were very upset constantly about my appearance when I was young. I donât
know what it was. You know, they just, it was very hard for them to
factor. But I've always had that problem. Even as a child, you know, I
used to go the beach when I was a little kid and just want to wear my
dungarees and my flannel shirt and the whole time people would be, why
are you wearing that? Why donât you get a bathing suit? You know, why,
it's like leave me alone.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: It's just like, I'm not bothering you. Why are you worried
about, you know, what I look like? You know, itâs just I'm not trying to
bother anybody. But people loved to photograph. The people on the
streets loved the photograph and it gave Robert some instant attention.
I think it was his, you know, the - where he - it really helped, you
know, launch his work into the public consciousness and so we were both
very happy about that. And the funniest thing and sort of the sweetest
thing was when I started performing after the record came out, I would
go to clubs anywhere. It could be Denmark, it could be in Youngstown,
Ohio and I would come on stage and at least half of the kids had white
shirts and black ties on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: It was kind of cool. We all had suddenly turned Catholic.
GROSS: My guest is Patti Smith and her new memoir "Just Kids" is about
her relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Robert
Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and you said this was at
the same time you found out you were pregnant with your second child.
You were married to the musician Fred Sonic Smith, then you'd moved to
Detroit where you were living. And Mapplethorpe's lover, his longtime
companion Sam died before he did. And you said that to comfort him you
wrote the lyrics, Fred, Fred Sonic Smith wrote music for the song,
"Paths That Cross," - paths that cross will cross again. Itâs a great
song. And I'd like to just â I'd like to play it, and I'd like you talk
a little bit about writing it for Mapplethorpe.
Ms. SMITH: Well, itâs a - that - well, the night that Sam died, I
couldnât sleep because I knew that - I was in Detroit, Robert was in New
York, and I could just imagine his suffering. I could feel him just -
not just the pain of losing Sam, but, you know, the shadow that it also
cast upon himself, because he was counting on Sam to pull through,
because Sam was always the sturdier one.
He was, like, physically like a God, you know, even though he was over
20 years older than both of us. He was never sick. He was virile, in
perfect health, and I think that I could feel all of these things that
Robert was feeling and thinking. And so I sat up all night and wrote
this little song, and I tried to write an optimistic song. It is an
optimistic song, I think.
Ms. SMITH: And write it in a sort of Sufi style, which - Sam loved the
Sufi ideology. And itâs interesting, I wrote this song for Robert to be
comforted. I knew when I was writing it that one day I would be
listening to it thinking of Robert, but this song had a long, long life
after that. Many people who lost loved ones from AIDS played this at
their funerals, their wakes. People have sent me pictures of their
headstones of their loved ones with the words carved on the headstone.
It really became, within a certain community, a song of comfort for a
lot of people who lost their loved ones, specifically through AIDS. And,
you know, so I - you know, truthfully, when I wrote it, I knew that I
would listen to it thinking of Robert, but I never anticipated that I
would also someday listen to it thinking of my late husband and my
brother and Richard Sohl, who played so beautifully on it, on "Dream Of
Life." So the song is â itâs seen a lot of loss in its wake.
GROSS: Letâs hear that song, "Paths That Cross." This is Patti Smith, as
recorded on her 1998 album, "Dream Of Life."
(Soundbite of song, "Paths That Cross")
Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Speak to me, speak to me, heart. I feel a needing
to bridge the clouds, softly go, a way I wish to know, wish to know, a
way I wish to know, to know. Oh, youâll ride, surely dance, in a ring,
backwards and forwards. Those who seek feel the glow, a glow we all will
know, will know. A glow we will all know, will know. On that day filled
with grace, and the heartâs communion, steps we take, steps we trace,
all the way to heart's reunion. Paths that cross, will cross again.
Paths that cross, will cross again...
GROSS: Patti Smith from her 1998 album, "Dream Of Life" and that song
was written to comfort Robert Mapplethorpe, who is the subject of her
new memoir, "Just Kids." You write that, you know, when Mapplethorpe
died of AIDS in March of '89, the morning that he died, you describe
your feelings and you say that you were shuddering, overwhelmed by a
sense of excitement, acceleration as if because of the closeness that
you experienced with Robert, you were to be privy to his new adventure,
the miracle of his death.
You say this wild sensation stayed with you for some days. Could you
describe that? Did you know he was dying, when you - did - had you
gotten the phone call when you felt this, or were you just feeling that,
you know, without even...
Ms. SMITH: No, I felt that after he died.
GROSS: After he died.
Ms. SMITH: I had already received the call that he had died. I mean, we
knew that he was dying. We knew that he was dying. The last couple of
weeks of his life, I talked to him â I talked to Robert in the last hour
that he could still speak. And I listened to his breathing before I went
to sleep. His brother called me and let me listen to his breathing, and
he died that morning. So that sensation that I felt was his, you know,
acceleration into his next place after death. I could really feel that.
Iâve experienced a lot of death since Robert. I sat with Allen Ginsberg
when he died. I was with my husband when he died, my parents. But
Robert, the acceleration and energy I felt after Robertâs death was
unique. And it did stay with me for quite a while. And I think that each
of us - you know, our energy leaves in a different way according to the
person, you know, according to the energy of the person, the way the
spirit manifests, each of us die differently.
And we have - you know, I believe that - I believe we all have a unique
journey, whether itâs a journey of pure energy, if there's any
intelligence within the journey. But I think each of us have our own way
of dissipating or entering a new field.
GROSS: My guest is Patti Smith. Her new memoir is called "Just Kids."
Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Patti Smith. Her new memoir "Just Kids" is about how
she became a poet, songwriter and performer. Itâs also about her
relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who became her soul
mate when she moved to New York in 1967. He died of AIDS in 1989.
You say that one of the people who you were with when he died was Allen
Ginsberg. And in your memoir, you mentioned some advice that Ginsberg
had given you. After your husband died, he said let go of the spirit of
the departed and continue your lifeâs celebration. Having experience as
much death as you have, is that a good advice, do you think?
Ms. SMITH: Yes. I mean, I think that, you know, there â the idea that
time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds arenât really ever
healed. We just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days we're
going to feel intense pain all over again and we just have to say, okay,
I know you. If - you can come along with me today, in the same way that
sometimes we start laughing out in the middle of nowhere remembering
something that happened with someone weâve lost.
And, you know, life is the best thing that we have. We each have a life.
We each have to negotiate it and navigate it. And I think itâs very
important that we enjoy our life, that we get everything we can out of
it. And it doesnât take away from our love of the departed. I mean, I
take Fred along with me in the things that I do, or Robert or my father
or my mother, you know, whoever wants to come along, they can be with
me. And, you know, and if I want them, I can sense them.
You know, we have our own life, but we can still walk with the people
that we miss or that we lose. And I think itâs very important to not be
afraid to experience joy in the middle of sorrow. When my brother died,
my sister and I sat with his body, our beloved brother, and we wept. And
then I donât know what happened, one of us triggered laughter in the
other. My brother and sister and I used to laugh so much that we would
get sick. And my sister and I started laughing, sitting with my brother,
as if he had infected us.
And we laughed so hard that we were scolded by the funeral director. And
which - you know, my brother, who was so mischievous, Iâm sure caused
all of this. But itâs all right. You know, we knew the depth of our
sorrow. So it was all right for us to also, you know, experience some
joy in his presence because, you know, thatâs what our life is - you
know, itâs the fearful symmetry of Blake, you know, joy and sorrow. You
donât want to just feel one of them. They're both valuable to the
GROSS: Patti Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SMITH: Oh, youâre welcome. Nice to talk to you, too.
GROSS: Patti Smithâs new memoir is called "Just Kids." In her song
"Elegie," first recorded on her 1975 album "Horses," she sings: I think
itâs sad. Itâs much too bad that our friends canât be with us today.
When she performed "Elegie" live in 2005, she ended it with these
(Soundbite of song, "Elegie")
Ms. SMITH: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bob Smith,
Fred Sonic Smith...
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. SMITH: ...Richard Sohl.
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. SMITH: (singing) To them, to them, to them.
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