When Patti Smith’s debut album, “Horses,” appeared in 1975, I was listening to another style of music entirely. I had just discovered Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, and shortly thereafter Bruce Springsteen. Yet even if I never heard (or at least paid attention to) her music, I couldn’t ignore the album’s cover. It was an often-reprinted black-and-white Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of the almost emaciated, androgynous singer with a Keith Richards-inspired hair cut and a jacket tossed over one shoulder. She was dressed in a white shirt and black slacks with slender strips of suspenders. Simultaneously feminine and masculine, tough and soft, it remains iconic 35 years later.
In recent weeks, I have done some catch-up on Smith. I just finished “Just Kids” (Ecco, $27), her memories of life with Mapplethorpe (Smith pronounces the “Mapple” in the name to rhyme with “maple” as in the syrup) and their shared journey to live for art. She recently won the National Book Award for nonfiction, an honor that humbled her, despite the praise she has reaped throughout her musical career. “I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf,” she said in her acceptance speech, as reported in the New York Times. “There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”
“Just Kids” is equally full of her awe for the printed word and other art forms that Smith experimented in as a starving artist during the 1960s and early ’70s (there’s truth to the hunger in that emaciated look on the “Horses” cover).
“Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” a documentary film available at the San Antonio Public Library, covers some similar biographical ground interspersed with scenes of Smith performing her work. Watching her quietly croon to her cat in a Lotte Lenya-style warble is as memorable as any shot of her onstage persona.
And I’ve started listening to “Horses,” which brings us back to that cover — and actually a food angle to this piece. In “Just Kids,” Smith remembers the day that photo was taken:
“I rolled out of bed and noticed it was late. I raced through my morning ritual, going around the corner to the Moroccan bakery, grabbing a crusty roll, a sprig of fresh mint, and some anchovies. I came back and boiled water, stuffing the pot with mint. I pour olive oil in the open roll, rinsed the anchovies and laid them inside, sprinkling in some cayenne pepper. I poured a glass of tea and thought better of wearing my shirt, knowing that I’d get olive oil on the front of it.
“Robert came to fetch me. … We hit the street. He was hungry but refused to eat my anchovy sandwiches, so we ended up having grits and eggs at the Pink Tea Cup.”
I’d have taken the anchovy sandwiches. No one but Mapplethorpe could have taken that photo, however. And he did it in about a dozen shots.
Therein lies the beauty of Smith’s memoir. You can’t pinpoint any one thought or factor as the origin of art. The influences, from grits to a great haircut, all play a part, and she documents as many as she can remember from a time when two young artist were struggling to define themselves.