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, , , , , , ,

Richie Havens

“For some odd reason, I know everybody,” says Richie Havens. Whether it was destiny or a cosmic hiccup, the musical climax of the ’60s was an auspicious day for Havens when an unplanned three-hour set opening the Woodstock Festival opened his doorway to worldwide recognition. “We landed, they chased me, I went on,” he explains. And yet, even if things hadn’t gone down that way, Havens would still have made his mark on rock history as a graduate of the original Greenwich Village folk scene, as a writer and interpreter of substantive songs, and as the third point in the magic triangle that connects Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

“I gave him the words to that,” says Havens, speaking of Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower”, the song Havens still uses to open all his shows. The first song Havens ever covered by Dylan was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; he’s since reworked “If Not For You”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Lay Lady Lay”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and, most recently, “Tombstone Blues” for the surreal biopic I’m Not There in which he also appeared. As for Hendrix, Havens first witnessed him in action in an uptown club and was so impressed, he hipped him to the Village scene. “I did share that with him—that he didn’t need to be a studio musician, at the whim of everyone else—that he could be in his own band… that’s how we started out knowing each other.”

The last time Havens saw Hendrix was at the second Isle of Wight Festival; the pair had planned to meet in London soon after but Hendrix never made it. “He was a very shy person, quiet person, until he got on stage; then he grew two feet tall,” Havens continues. “He created himself and this showed when he walked up on that stage, how powerful it was and how necessary it was… he loved Bob Dylan’s songs too.”

Beatnik Beginnings

With his ears that catch the rhythm of words and a heart that stays constantly tuned to the station of brotherly love, Havens is a fellow traveler for freethinking ’60s grads and a father figure to those who wish they could’ve been there. As someone who falls in the gap, I can be easily mesmerized by stories of Allen Ginsberg, Hendrix, Dylan, and Woodstock among other things, and so I was willing to take the leap into Havens’ world. Like a new age beatnik who broadcasts the subterranean news through his songs, poems, artwork, and stories that reach across generations (his latest album is No One Left to Crown), Havens fits Jack Kerouac’s description of Beats as “characters of a special spirituality.” A self-proclaimed “song singer” and “all-around expressionist,” he was not only present, but he participated in the cultural shift that began with the Beats and carried over into a mass movement in the ’60s. And yet for Havens, the decade was just the staging ground for the bigger change that’s going to come, the one he says is taking place right now: He calls this phenomenon humanity’s becoming. “I’m blessed to see that we’re really just beginning on what it was we were supposed to be working at, in order to bring about the connection of all of us to each other,” he says.

Back in 1958, when Richie Havens was a teenage doo-wop singer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the kids there called him a beatnik. Not knowing for sure what that meant, he took a train with a friend to Greenwich Village to see what he could find out.

“We found out these guys in the neighborhood were talking about poets, and what they might’ve thought was derogatory became a very positive thing to us,” says Havens. It wasn’t long before he was reading his own poems in Village coffeehouses. “We’d sit at a table with our little books and Ginsberg would say, ‘What’s in those books? Get up there and read them!’ That’s how it began for me.

“A lot of people say, ‘What did we do? We didn’t do much.’ Oh yes we did,” he says, in answer to the cynics. “That which was a part of us was connecting up with what we were becoming at that point. And so it was wonderful to see changes. We made an atmosphere. That’s what we’re doing now. Backgrounds and atmosphere. Oh, that’s a good title! Backgrounds and atmosphere.”

Finding work in the Village as a portrait artist, he also discovered folk music in the coffeehouses and began to spend more and more nights in them, arriving later and later to the painting gig, while moving further away from his Bed-Stuy roots. He might crash in the city with singing pals like Little Anthony and the Imperials, but doo wop was no longer compelling to him, nor was the Brooklyn he knew as he watched his neighborhood and old pals take directions he wasn’t going. And so he left doo wop and a potential life in “show biz,” and became a part of what he calls the “communication business,” joining up with the folk scene. “I gave up show biz when I found a different song to sing, like Freddie Neil’s song to ‘Tear Down the Walls.’ In 1959? I’m going, ‘wow.’”

“The music’s in the air, where every man is free,” sang Fred Neil on “Tear Down the Walls”, one of his early-period folk songs. “When I think about it, that’s a heck of a time, when almost nobody was asking those kinds of things or projecting them,” says Havens.

“And Dino Valenti, ‘Love is but a song we sing, and fear’s the way we die,’” he sings, quoting “Get Together.” “He wrote it in 1958! We were awakening by these songs… I couldn’t wait for them to write another song so I could sing it from the audience with them.” Havens took to singing-along, especially while Fred Neil performed, “in harmony no less,” while Neil, who had a reputation as friend-to-the-new-folkie, advised him to get a guitar and learn his own. Three days later, Havens returned to the Village and began to perform six nights a week for the next six years.

“I thought it was time for my friends to hear something more than what we were relegated to do,” he says, referring to the diminishing options for his street corner pals. Havens’ parents were working people; his paternal grandfather was a Blackfoot Indian who traveled east with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. His maternal grandmother was a Caribbean Islander from Great Britain, “born on Christmas Day,” who helped raise him while his parents worked. He recalls one day, as she hung laundry on the line in the backyard, she asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I said, ‘I want to meet everyone in the whole world.’ I was about five. I’d sit outside and look at the moon in daylight all the time… I’d make a circle with my hands, like a big open eye, and just cut out everything but the clouds going by… I was always fascinated to be a part of this becoming. I don’t think there was any negative feeling I could have.”

A Mixed Bag

He cut some songs in the early to mid-’60s, but it was his 1967 and 1968 albums, Mixed Bag and Something Else Again, that revealed his own growing consciousness, as well as the imprint of Fred Neil, whose strong strumming style and suspended notes echo through Havens’ own work. Tangling with war and the civil rights issues on “Handsome Johnny” (the lyrics were written by his friend, actor Lou Gossett, Jr., himself a onetime Village folkie), he also took on “The Klan.” He laid down his famous version of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, the song which he says personally illuminated the multi-dimensionality of womankind for him. Simone would go on to perform the Havens song “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed;” it was her commitment to dynamic, emotional song interpretation that also freed Havens to sing the songs of others in whatever mode moved him. And though Simone’s music defied boundaries, by virtue of his acoustic guitar strumming, Havens is most often put into the folk or folk-rock bag.

“All music is folk music,” says Havens. “There is a folk-music quality to my generation’s rock ‘n’ roll. We were singing about things without thinking of them as social commentary.” Then, as now, if Havens has an overriding message, it concerns freedom, something that he says “we are supposed to have already.”

“Freedom” is the name of Haven’s best-known song, the one that famously evolved out of an improvisation at the end of his accidental three-hour opening set at Woodstock. He and his two-man group were meant to be fourth on the bill, but they were thrown on stage as the first because, unlike some of the other acts, Havens and company were present and accounted for, easy to set up, and all importantly, had not ingested the infamous brown acid.

“I went and did my 40 minutes, I walked off and they said, ‘Richie, can you do about four more songs?’ No one was there to go on. I went back and sang the four songs. I walked off. ‘Richie… four more?’ They did that six times until I realized, I don’t have another song. I’m done. I’ve sung every song I know. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes later… and that’s when I start that long intro, that’s me trying to figure out what I’m going to play, and I yell out the thing about the guitar microphone… please, let me stall a little bit more!”

After about a minute of freelancing a percussive riff in his distinctive open-D tuning, accompanied by an Afro-Cuban conga beat, he cried the word “freedom,” and then repeated it eight more times. “I just went with that… all of a sudden, ‘Motherless Child’ came out. I hadn’t sung that song in 14 or 15 years. I used to sing it early on in the Village.” He also slipped in a couple of secularized verses from a song he calls “I Got a Telephone in My Bosom” (a variation on the song that became known as “Jesus is on the Mainline”), which he learned during a brief gospel education. And though he was in a state of improvisational ecstasy, Havens could still sense that by participating in Woodstock, he was taking part in history.

“They can’t hide us anymore” was the thought that went through his head upon seeing the masses at Max Yasgur’s Farm that day. At first observing the scene through the floorboards of the helicopter that was delivering him to the gig, and later from his vantage point on the stage, “I thought, ‘when the pictures come out in the newspaper, they’ll see we are now above ground. We’re no longer relegated to the underground.’”

The Here and Now

Part of Havens’ method for delivering his message remains through singing the work of others. OnNobody Left to Crown, he finally got around to recording Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance”, an urgent missive on the human cost of war that he’s been performing for some time now. He also pulls out a show-stopping version of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

“I wanted to do it right after it came out, I loved it so much, but I thought, ‘it doesn’t need to be said twice—the Who’s done it.’ I held that in a box—my hold it box. It took this long to come back around and it fit.”

He wrote and recorded the title song live years ago, but saved the studio recording of it until now. “What if they gave an election and nobody came? What would we be doing? There’s nobody left to crown but us, for all of the things we’ve been through because of politics… for example, we learned this year that every law that was passed was passed in the middle of the night and no one knew it.”

For all of his political awareness, Havens has never been one to exercise his right to vote—until now. He went to the polls for the first time for the 2008 presidential primaries. “I found that it was now necessary to do that.”

Soon after the Woodstock experience, people all over the world started to request he play his own creation, “Freedom.” “And I’d say, ‘Freedom? Which freedom?’ And they’d say, ‘You know, “Motherless Child.”’ Holy smokes! Then it turns out to be in the movie and this is a big time change for me.” Havens had never seen himself perform until the Woodstock film came out months later. “It scared me to death, it was just so large. It wasn’t me, you know. It was a song. I became a mechanism to get that song out.”

The Woodstock Festival and the Isle of Wight shortly thereafter introduced Richie Havens to audiences on a massive scale as a dynamic acoustic performer and ambassador of socially conscious song and thought. He never tires of his responsibility as a ’60s generational spokesperson, though he’s an even bigger supporter of youth and the environment; in 1990, he helped to found the Natural Guard in New Haven, Connecticut, an organization where kids began to “guard the natural” in their own surroundings. From a community garden that fed the homeless to a lead poisoning awareness campaign, kids spotted the problems and created solutions that had a lasting impact on their community as well as their own lives. “It really was based on children using their own community as the endangered environment. The most put-upon group is children.” Children from three different chapters were recognized by then-Senator Al Gore for their environmental justice efforts.

If Havens has learned anything through his years of becoming, it’s that his work here isn’t yet done. “Don’t expect everything that happens to finish itself at once. It’s still happening, and it’ll reveal itself to you.” As he travels (he works three nights a week, down from his Village-era six), he finds that the local talent who open his shows seek his counsel on how to proceed with their careers. Advocating the digital DIY approach, he tells them, “Make your record, get someone to help you put it out, and go to the world directly. Get your feedback from the whole planet. That’s where you connect.”

Of course, that’s easy to say if you’re Richie Havens, the boy who told his grandmother he intended to meet everyone in the world some day and a man who believes music can change the world. But can it, really? “Absolutely,” he says. “And it will soon.” —published on September 10, 2008 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Richie Havens, , , ,

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