Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Lives and loves: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

“He wrote me a note to say we would make art together, and we would make it with or without the rest of the world,” writes Patti Smith of Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, her memoir of their lives and great love. Concerning their time as young artists discovering New York City and themselves in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, not only would both of them make art together, they would eventually become nothing short of internationally recognized, particularly among artists, freethinkers, and members of their blank generation. But while Mapplethorpe’s life was cut short by AIDS in 1989, Smith lived on to keep the fire of rock’s poetic origins alight, Mapplethorpe’s influence on her inseparable from the origin of inspiration in her art and life.  Without his prodding—his love—it’s quite possible that an entirely different Patti Smith than the one we know would have emerged. In Just Kids, Smith reveals Mapplethorpe’s commitment to art, his companionship, and his collaboration in the years leading up to her debut album Horses was invaluable to its creation: Not only did he capture the image of the poet/rock star-to-be on its cover, but it was he who first encouraged her to sing.

Produced (reportedly with some difficulty) by John Cale and performed by the Patti Smith Group (with songs written mostly by Smith and co-writers Tom Verlaine, Allen Lanier, and members of her group, specifically Lenny Kaye), Horses launched at least a hundred punk bands, if not a generation of kids with punk attitude, and it remains fully alive today. Infused with the spirit of Smith’s dead poet/rock ‘n’ roll heroes—particularly Arthur Rimbaud, the libertine poet whose spirit she’s kept moving through rock ‘n’ roll—the first word of the first song is “Jesus,” as Smith cleverly fuses her own invocation to Van Morrison, proclaiming rock ‘n’ roll “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo.” Whether intertwined with the Catholicism of Mapplethorpe’s youth or with Rimbaud’s travels to Ethiopia and his relationship to Rastafari, Smith made bold statements, particularly for a young woman who claimed to be shy by nature; she summoned the spirits of two men named James (Hendrix and Morrison) with three Bobs (Marley, Dylan, and Neuwirth) or four if you count Mapplethorpe, and her own strong desire to merge poetry with performing rock ‘n’ roll.

“I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this… yet, I harbored that conceit,” she writes in Just Kids. Her connection with Hendrix was slightly more intimate: She was invited to the opening of his recording studio, Electric Lady. “I was excited to go. I put on my straw hat and walked downtown, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to go in,” she writes. “By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and grinned.” He talked to Patti, revealing that he didn’t like parties either. “He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play… Eventually, they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio. ‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.” And then he was off, to catch a plane to England, from which he never returned. Smith read the news of his death about a month later while on a trip to Paris—on one of her rare respites from her gigs as a bookstore clerk/rough living artist/caretaker of Robert.

In New York, she happened to meet singer-songwriter and painter Bob Neuwirth in a coffee shop (she recognized him from the Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back), and becomes just a little more inspired to try her hand at turning her poems into songs. “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,’ he said as we exited the bar,” she writes. But when she reports to Mapplethorpe of meeting Neuwirth, the photographer snaps back, “Maybe he’ll be the one to get you to sing, but always remember who wanted you to sing first.” Mapplethorpe doesn’t approve of Smith’s Marley-inspired pot smoking either, but the pair go on to spark up some sacred herb together, in the name of enhancing creativity.

Trying on her voice, reading her poetry aloud, Smith dove into performance mostly without Robert’s help, as he was moving deeper into the world of street hustling (this time it’s Patti who is disapproving). She reads for unappreciative fans of the New York Dolls and gets heckled by drunks before finding her sea legs and accompanists—first guitarist Lenny Kaye, and then Richard Sohl on piano. But when it’s time to record a single, it’s Robert who pays for the studio time at Electric Lady. For the recording, they choose “Hey Joe”, a song made famous by Hendrix. While Jimi closed his set at Woodstock with it, Smith and co. use it to usher in the era of the punk rock seven-inch. Recording at Jimi’s place, “I felt a real sense of duty,” she told the Observer in 2005. “I was very conscious that I was getting to do something that he didn’t.” Though Horses’ de facto title track “Land” was famously inspired by William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, the lesser-acknowledged last third—“La Mer (de)”—makes reference to Jimi (“In the sheets there was a man”), as well as Rimbaud. “Elegie”, the final song on Horses, is also for Hendrix: It was recorded on September 18th, the anniversary of his death. “I think it’s sad, just too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today,” she wrote, the words closely echoing those from Jimi’s “Well, it’s too bad that our friends can’t be with us today,” from  “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” from Electric Ladyland. As for fellow inspirer and rock star ghost Jim Morrison, “Break It Up” was based on a dream Smith had about him covered in plaster—like a statue.

Patti Smith - HorsesThe making of Smith’s own image as a rock star poet was yet another Mapplethorpe collaboration. “You should take your own photographs,” she once told him, and eventually he turned his attention away from jewelry, objects, and installations and towards photography. For the Horses cover Mapplethorpe knew exactly what he wanted, and so did Smith: “I flung the jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style; I was full of references,” she writes. Though still developing as a photographer, Mapplethorpe was clear that he would work only in shades of black and white. Illuminated only by natural light, he got the image of Patti in 12 shots.

“Patti, you got famous before me,” said Mapplethrope in 1978 as he and Smith walked the streets of Greenwich Village. “Because the Night”, the song Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen, blared from a series of storefront radios, “fulfilling Robert’s dream that I would one day have a hit record,” Smith writes. The song rose to lucky 13 on the pop charts, but Smith was burning out on the biz before she’d barely gotten stared in it. Following the recording of the album Wave, produced by her friend Todd Rundgren and again cover photographed by Mapplethorpe, she retreated from New York and rock to live as a wife and mother in Detroit, where her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, hailed. But the hiatus didn’t really take, and by 1986, she was ready to make a comeback. With the encouragement of her husband, she called her old friend Robert to see if he would shoot a portrait for the album, Dream of Life; Mapplethorpe, who had become a major art star in the interim, took the photo of Patti as a 40th birthday gift. But the reunion between artists was fated to be brief, and the sessions that took place yielded some of his final photos.

Mapplethorpe’s patron and partner Sam Wagstaff succumbed to AIDS during the making of the album (Smith and Smith recorded “Paths That Cross” in Wagstaff’s memory). She had sung “The Jackson Song” (for the Smiths’ son) in which Mapplethorpe is also referenced (“little blue star that offers light”) to Wagstaff as a lullaby in his final days. Recording for Dream of Life continued, and she wrote “Wild Leaves” for Robert on the occasion of his 41st birthday. Somewhere in this mix, Smith and Smith also penned an enduring protest anthem, “People Have the Power”—the kind of song people sing when they need to raise a little spirit to keep on keeping on. Dream of Life was finally released in June of 1988, 10 years after the success of “Because the Night.” Mapplethorpe died in March of 1989, and Smith wrote “Memorial Tribute” (“little emerald soul, little emerald eye”) for him (it appears on the 1993 No Alternative AIDS awareness compilation).

In 1994, Fred “Sonic” Smith died, followed by the death of Patti Smith’s brother Todd and her bandmate Richard Sohl. Soon to turn 50, she returned to Electric Lady for the recording of the 1996 album Gone Again, a tribute to her dead friends and loved ones. Kurt Cobain was mourned (“About a Boy”) and soon to be gone Jeff Buckley sang on “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a song that survives as part of the Patti Smith Group’s concert repertoire. Following an eight year gap after Dream of LifeGone Again, recorded in Fred’s memory, proved to be Smith’s real comeback. Now without Fred or Robert, she was supported as ever by guitarist Lenny Kaye and by new friend Oliver Ray, a young poet and guitarist who joined her band and photographed her. Michael Stipe (who had been inspired to become an artist himself upon hearing Horses) was also on board as a road friend when Bob Dylan invited her to tour with him. Back on the swing shift as a musician, there was no time to write the book she promised Robert on the day before he died that she would one day write.

In 2010, 35 years after its debut,  Horses was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, archived for posterity alongside sonic artifacts by Little Richard, Willie Nelson, and Ethel Merman. That same year, Just Kids won the National Book Award. Moved to tears as she accepted the honor, Smith recalled what it was like to work as a bookstore clerk, dreaming of what it might feel like to author a book with the award-winning seal one day. “Thanks for letting me know,” she said by way of acceptance. For the reader, Just Kids is the kind of book that serves not only as a history of a bygone age or a how-to as an artist, but as inspirational literature. It is a reminder that we are all members of the human family and artists of the everyday. If we are lucky, we have friends, relatives, and inspirers, our own set of losses, and our own unique memories, as well as a collective conscience from which we draw. There are dreams to be accessed and visions to fulfill, all day, everyday, whether through words, music, pictures, or the creation of an artful life. As Allen Ginsberg told Patti upon the occasion of the death of Fred “Sonic” Smith:  “Let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life’s celebration.”

While Mapplethorpe depicted dark against light—and vice versa, his increasingly sexually explicit images landed him in much hot water. But there is something innocent in his early photograph of Smith that portends more about the new wave of rocker than words could have ever described at the time: Smith is an original and reverent, androgynous yet vulnerable, regular but inscrutable. Mapplethorpe’s true image of her on Horses ripples through the contemporary persona who conducted the interviews for Just Kids: Patti Smith in black and white has her humble and “bravada” sides; the disheveled waif converges with the mensch in designer clothes. Open but reserved, she is a wizened poet who’s still girlish, gangly, and awkward—and still very much in love with art and life.


Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Origin of Song, Poetry, Punk, Reggae, , , , , , ,

And So This is Christmas. Again.

A version of this column originally appeared as an installment of The Origin of Song for Crawdaddy! online

And so it was that a centuries-old folk song about a race horse launched a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas standard 40 years ago, or so the story goes.  Oh, I know this will not be news to the most scholarly of you folk and rock types, however, for this folk and rock type, I hadn’t made the link  until it was pointed out to me a couple of years ago that the melody to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a borrowed tune.

“Stewball” was a race horse, as the song goes, and the first song about him was written in the late 1700s. At that time, Stewball went by the name Skewball, though you might also see versions that tell of Sku-ball and Squball. The name was likely because his coat was of the skewbald variety, or what we call “pinto,” a horse with patches of color, usually on a chestnut or reddish base (funny that at some point he wasn’t dubbed Screwball). According to folk music lore and some reliable sources, Arthur Marvell’s Sku-Ball was set to race Sir Ralph Gore’s gray mare Miss Portly in Kildare, Ireland. But when the dark horse, or more accurately, the skewbald horse won, it took the horse people by surprise:  They had expected the animal with the pedigree to take home the prize. Newsworthy as this was, the story made the broadsides: Printed on cheap paper and passed around, a popular ballad was born, beginning its journey through time and around the world.

Lyrically, there are plenty of variations on the “Skewball” story: For example, “Molly and Tenbrooks” is an American telling of a late 19th century horse race between California’s Mollie McCarty and Kentucky’s Ten Broeck. Versions of “Molly and Tenbrooks” were cut by bluegrass giants, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, but theirs are a different melody, though related by subject and genre to “Stewball” by kissin’ cousins the Greenbriar Boys. There lay the origin of the melody Joan Baez recorded. Her version is also somewhat of a conflation of the stories told in “Stewball” (who in some cases is a wine-drinking, winning race horse), and “Molly and Tenbrooks” (in which the mare stumbles and thus explains Stew’s win).

Comparing, compiling, and commenting on centuries-old ballads is a vocation to which I am not called; the work is best left to experts like Steve Roud of Croydon, London—he’s compiled the Roud Folk Song Index, listing 33 versions of Stewball and 22 versions of Skewball with data to match. He’s got the info on the John Lomax recordings of inmates of Parchman Farm singing their version in the ’30s, as well as Lead Belly’s ’40s adaptation (which begins “Way out in California…”), but again, different melody, different words, though the horse legend remains inasmuch as the “Stewball” recorded by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston concerns a race between a California and a Texas horse.

The version many of us know as “Stewball” entered the folk-rock zone in the ’60s, delivered by Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary via the Greenbriars song, credited to John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Robert Yellin. For rock folk, there could hardly be worse news than the prospect of yet another rousing verse of the song about a race horse by these buttoned-up icons of traditional song. But by 1966, the Hollies had delivered their folk-rock take on it, with the added zing of their harmony style. With this in mind, we now depart from the green fields of Ireland and the pastures of the Southwest where the story takes on a greater 20th century relevance as it moves to New York City in 1971, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono borrowed the melody and came up with a Christmas song, its subject peace on earth during wartime.

“‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control,” Lennon said in his final major interview. Lennon and Ono had used the “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” slogan in their billboard campaign of 1969, based on the idea that peace must be sold to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war is promoted (The Doors had previously  used the slogan, “war is over,” in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967).

John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (whose star players for the purpose of this session were Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) and the Harlem Children’s Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”) recorded the song in October at the Record Plant, assisted by producer Phil Spector. It was released in the US on December 6th and held ’til the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence on the track, though for now, it’s purely conjecture whether in addition to inspiration plucked from the Greenbriars’ version, as rendered by PPM and Baez, there is also a dash of such claustrophobic Spector efforts as the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, not to mention another song from Lennon’s past: “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace. “Happy Xmas” bears traces of those melodies in addition to their somber moods.

Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

There are plenty of covers of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, none of them mentionable, and some of them unmentionable (Billy Bob Thornton). The only version worth a bleep that I’ve heard is the original. The melody of “Stewball” seems to have been laid to rest with Lennon’s imaginative use of it, and has insured that it’s sung at least once a year.

From the race tracks of County Kildare to the chain gangs of Mississippi, Stewball is tired and has gone to the place where retired horses go. Think of him this year as you sing along. Or don’t. But do take to heart the song’s final verse: “A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s good one, without any fear”). That is my message to you, dear reader. Thanks for hanging with me through this “Stewball” adventure, and for that matter, throughout this year.  If there are songs or subjects you are interested in reading about next year, let me know. Just no suggestions involving horses, please: I’m happy to say I’ve finished that race.

WARNING:  Video depicts graphic imagery of the horror of war.

Filed under: anti-war, Origin of Song, , , , , ,

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