On a recent afternoon, Patti Smith pushed open the glass doors of the Chelsea Hotel and stepped into her past. When she lived in the fabled hotel in 1969 and '70, she used to sit on a bench in the lobby, a den of Pop art paintings and dusty furniture, and marvel at the artists and eccentrics tramping to their rooms.
One day she was holding a stuffed black crow, which she had just bought at the Museum of the American Indian, when Salvador Dali, in a black and scarlet cape, strolled in and placed a slim hand on her head. "You are like a crow, a gothic crow," the painter said.
Smith was visiting the Chelsea to recount her magical year at the hotel, detailed in her new book, "Just Kids." The book is a moving portrait of the artist as a young woman, and a vibrant profile of Smith's onetime boyfriend and lifelong muse, Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989.
At age 63, Smith in person shows off the intellectual electricity and emotional generosity of the bold poet who lighted up a stage in 1971, her verse amplified by the riveting squall of her friend Lenny Kaye's guitar. If she is more self-protected and reflective now, she remains the inveterate bohemian, dressed in jeans and floppy work boots, her brownish hair vaguely braided beneath a skull cap.
Direct from the source
Volumes have been written about Smith since 1975, when she released "Horses," a work of transcendent and lasting beauty, the first of nine albums that paved her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. And a small library could be built on works about Mapplethorpe, whose brazen photographs of male nudes and bondage are still lionized as either signs of cultural liberation or moral apocalypse.
"Just Kids," though, is the first book that frees both artists from their respective mystiques as punk goddess and gay provocateur. "I wanted to remind people we were once young and struggling," Smith said. "Both of us were awkward and still finding out who we were in every way. People have written about us in that period but never with the accurate voice, the accurate atmosphere, the accurate magic."
Smith unlocks her teenage diaries, baring the insecurities of "a skinny loser," and explaining why at 20 she gave up a newborn daughter to foster parents. She met Mapplethorpe by chance in Brooklyn in 1967, when she moved there from southern New Jersey. The duo fell instantly in tune with each other and became their biggest mutual fans. "Nobody sees as we do, Patti," Mapplethorpe would say.
Smith offers new insights into the former Catholic altar boy, who could be sweet and tender, and was as driven to make it as an artist as Smith was. She limns Mapplethorpe's pain at making peace with his sexuality and confesses her heartbreak at losing him to a sexual demimonde she at first didn't comprehend. Although she had read the outlaw works of Jean Genet, she writes, "I knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality."
The book was a long time coming. Smith made a pact with Mapplethorpe as he was dying to tell his story. But as she began making notes for the book, her original pianist, Richard Sohl, died, and in 1994, her husband, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith, and her brother, Todd, passed away.
"I couldn't even touch a book about loss," she said. In fact, she was dropped from her initial publisher for missing deadlines.
While "Just Kids" is ultimately a wonderful portal into the dawn of Smith's art, its elegance and power stem from being written by the mature artist today. Many rock performers are frozen in the past, but Smith has continued to evolve and embody the very un-rock themes of aging and dying and aiming for joy as time winds down.
"Patti is the most positive human being I've ever met," said Kaye, who has now been performing with her for almost 40 years. "She looks for the light in everything."
A hotel like no other
"You know what? It's not that different in here," Smith said, walking through the Chelsea lobby, which still looked liked a modern art gallery curated in the psychic state of delirium. "Of course," she added, "back then they didn't have a gift shop."
Inside a claustrophobic elevator, its rich wood a throwback to another era, Smith declared, "I met Muhammad Ali in this elevator. I used to perform in boxing shoes and I had them over my shoulder when he walked in. He went" -- she mimics two jabs -- "and I was just speechless."
At the dark end of a corridor on the second floor, Smith stood outside the room that she and Mapplethorpe shared. "I really loved this little room," she said. It was being renovated and so was locked. She pointed to the room next door, where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, under the demon spell of alcohol, penned his last words in 1953.
Smith explained she paid $65 a week in rent, which was exactly how much she was earning as a bookstore clerk. For his part, Mapplethorpe drummed up the occasional odd job, like moving pianos.
"That's why we weren't eating much," Smith said. She pulled a handful of cash from her jeans. "I'm still amazed after all these years that I got cash in my pocket. I still look at it in wonder."
She moved down the hallway, past the room where Bob Dylan lived and wrote "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," a song she had listened to hundreds of times and which contained the phrase "cowboy mouth," the name of the play she wrote with Sam Shepard in his own Chelsea room about their combustible love affair in 1970.
Smith stopped in the middle of the hallway near the hotel's gothic staircase, its marble steps and floral black iron balustrade seemingly rising into the sky. "It's upsetting, truthfully, to be here," she said. "It's like going back to your childhood home and seeing your younger self. It's both beautiful and painful. Almost everyone I knew here and loved is gone."
She mentioned maverick folklorist Harry Smith, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs "and most importantly, Robert."
In "Just Kids," Smith writes that the "Chelsea was like a doll's house in the Twilight Zone," and apparently it still is. On the 10th floor, as Smith tried to locate the entirely white room that once belonged to artist Sandy Daley, who had made short films of Mapplethorpe getting his nipple pierced and Smith getting a lightning bolt tattooed on her knee, current hotel residents materialized from their suites to help.
After minutes of commotion in the corridor, it was determined a suite that had a sign on the door, "Take your shoes off," had to be it, if only for cosmic reasons, as Daley "always made us take our shoes off before entering," Smith said with a laugh.
After the Chelsea
In 1970, Mapplethorpe met a slovenly man walking his bulldog on the street outside the Chelsea. The man rented him part of his loft, a few doors from the hotel, as a studio. Soon after, the man, whom Mapplethorpe and Smith dubbed "Pigman" -- the place was a mess -- died, and so they rented the entire loft for $240 a month, and moved out of the Chelsea.
Smith wanted to visit the loft. Walking up the dingy stairs in the nondescript building, she recalled that she and Mapplethorpe worked for days to clean and paint the place. "Nobody wanted to live here because it was so creepy because he had died in there and the whole place smelled and had dog poop in it," Smith said.
The loft represented an artistic flowering for Mapplethorpe and Smith. With rooms of their own, each set the course for works that would, respectively, influence music and photography for generations.
Unfortunately, the doors to the loft were now locked. It was a business office of a brand design firm, which fashioned logos for Pepsi.
Smith was now due at the Robert Miller Gallery, located a few blocks away, and so said goodbye to the loft and Chelsea. She was mounting an art show of her paintings and photographs, along with memorabilia seen in the recent documentary about her, "Dream of Life," made over 12 years by photographer Steven Sebring.
Smith was thrilled with the documentary because in a youth-obsessed culture it focused on a woman between the ages of 50 and 60. "Not that 60 is so old," she said. "But it was bold of Steven to spend so much time, money and energy on this period of my life."
With "Just Kids" finally headed to bookstores -- Smith is set to do local readings Jan. 29 at Book Soup in West Hollywood and Jan. 30 at Skylight Books in Los Feliz -- Smith is happily back to the drawing board in her 19th century town house in Manhattan's Soho district, her two Abyssinian cats roaming through piles of books.
She said rock is part of her life only when she walks around the house humming new melodies and imagining lyrics for them. Otherwise, she listens to opera all day on satellite radio, with an occasional break for Glenn Gould's luminous piano music.
She knows her early albums have been codified in rock history, but to her, songs like "Birdland" and "Because the Night" are not clouded in nostalgia but are as alive as the day she first performed them. On stage, she said, "We enter our songs with the same spirit and fierceness and devotion as we did 30 years ago."
Above all, Smith said, this is a time of celebration, as her son, Jackson (who last year married White Stripes drummer Meg White) and daughter, Jesse, have grown into fine musicians themselves.
"I'm determined that no matter what happens in the world this year, I'm going to be happy and appreciative," Smith said. "I feel inspired. I'm writing detective stories and poems. I'm cutting a new record. I have a million ideas."