Woolgathering By Patti Smith
A New Directions Book 1992
“And the image of the woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind” (12).
By Patti Smith
HarperCollinsPublishers 2010 New York
I read this book in tandem with Patricia Morrisroe’s biography of Robert Mapplethorpe. I was interested to see if any of the stories collided. They were obviously different works with Patti writing from first person and Mapplethorpe being a biography. Patti focuses her work, Just Kids, on the friendship between Mapplethorpe and herself, mythologizing along the way about both of their personas. I often felt like Patti was working to appear stranger and more quirky than perhaps was actually her true self. Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe biography did not focus on the friendship, for its target is Robert himself. Whereas the Mapplethorpe biography (to be summarized in a separate piece) does not shy away from the decadent details of sexual exploration pre-and-inside the AIDS epidemic, Smith engages in very little discussion of Mapplethorpe’s twisted sexual proclivities. It feels as if she wanted his focus to remain on her as muse rather than face the harsh reality that she was simply another stepping-stone to Mapplethorpe’s promotion of his outsized ego.
“On one such day, limping back to the home front beneath the anvil of the su, I was accosted by my mother.
“‘Patricia,’ my mother scolded, ‘put a shirt one!’
“‘It’s too hot,’ I moaned. ‘No one else has one on.’
“‘Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.’ I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to become anything but myself, that I was of the clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up” (10).
“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not” (11).
Of Mapplethorpe she writes: “The light fell upon the pages of his coloring book, across his child’s hands. Coloring excited him, not the act of filling in space, but choosing colors that no one else would select. In the green of the hills he saw red. Purple snow, green skin, silver sun. He liked the effect it had on others, that it distrurbed his siblings. He discovered he had a talent for sketching. He was a natural draftsman and secretly he twisted and abstracted his images, feeling his growing powers. He was an artist, and he knew it. It was not a childish notion. He merely acknowledged what was his” (13).
“No one expected me. Everything awaited me” (25).
“We piled the best leaves on the bread and happily ate.
“‘A real prison breakfast,’ I said.
“‘Yeah, but we are free.’
“And that summed it up” (28).
“When it got really rough, I would go back to Pratt, occasionally bumping into someone I knew who would let me shower and sleep a night. Or else I would sleep in the hall near a familiar door. That wasn’t much fun, but I had my mantra, ‘I’m free, I’m free.’ Although after several days, my other mantra, ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry,’ seemed to be in the forefront. I wasn’t worried, though. I just needed a break and I wasn’t going to give up. I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop, trying not to wear out my unwelcome.
“It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of ‘Crystal Ship.’ Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life” (31). She meets Robert Mapplethorpe.
“But Robert, wishing to shed his Catholic yoke, delved into another side of the spirit, reigned over by the Angel of Light. The image of Lucifer, the fallen angel, came to eclipse the saints he used in his collages and varnished onto boxes. On one small wooden box, he applied the face of Christ; inside, a Mother and Child with a tiny white rose; and in the inner lid, I was surprised to find the face of the Devil, with his extended tongue.
“I would return home to find Robert in brown monk’s cloth, a Jesuit robe he had found in a thrift store, poring over pamphlets on alchemy and magic. He asked me to bring him books slanted toward the occult. At first he didn’t read these books so much as utilize their pentagrams and satanic images, deconstructing and refiguring them. He was not evil, though as darker elements infused his work, he became more silent.
“He grew interested in creating visual spells, which might serve to call up Satan, like one would a genie. He imagined if he could make a pact that accessed Satan’s purest self, the self of the light, he would recognize a kindred soul, and that Satan would grant him fame and fortune. He did not have to ask for greatness, for the ability to be an artist, because he believed he already had that” (62-3).
“Robert was cutting out sideshow freaks from an oversized paperback on Tod Browning. Hermaphrodites, pinheads, and Siamese twins were scattered everywhere. It threw me, for I couldn’t see a connection between these images and Robert’s recent preoccupation with magic and religion” (67).
“It was in that spirit that we would go to Coney Island to visit the sideshows. We had looked for Hubert’s on Forty-second Street, which had featured Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus, but it had closed in 1965. We did find a small museum that had body parts and human embryos in specimen jars, and Robert got fixated on the idea to use something of that sort in an assemblage. He asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island.”
“We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.
“We all had to agree that Robert would most likely make great use of it. He clutched the precious find on the journey home. Even in his silence, I could feel his excitement and anticipation, imagining how he could make it work as art” (68).
“In early June, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol” (69).
“In response I made a collage drawing for him called My Hustler, where I used one of his letters as a component. Even as he reassured me that I had nothing to worry about, he seemed to be moving deeper into the sexual underworld that he was portraying in his art. He seemed to be attracted to S&M imagery–’I’m not sure what that all means–just know it’s good’–and described to me works titled Tight Fucking Pants, and drawings in which he lacerated S&M characters with a matte knife. ‘I have a hook coming out of where his prick should be, where I’m gonna hang that chain with dice and skulls from it.’ He spoke of using bloody bandages and starred patches of gauze.
“He wasn’t merely jerking off. He was filtering this world through his own aesthetic, criticizing a movie called Male Magazine as ‘nothing more than an exploitation film using an all male cast.’ When he visited the Tool Box, and S&M bar, he felt it was ‘just a bunch of big chains and shit on the wall, nothing really exciting,’ and wished he could design a place like that.
“As the weeks went on, I worried that he wasn’t doing well. It wasn’t like him to complain about his physical condition. ‘My mouth is sick,’ he wrote, ‘my gums are white and achy.’ He sometimes didn’t have enough money to eat.
“His P.S. was still filled with Robert bravado. ‘I’ve been accused of dressing like a hustler, having the mind of a hustler and the body of one” (84). [Well…if it looks, sounds and walks like a duck…]
“I’m in Mike Hammer mode, puffing on Kools reading cheap detective novels sitting in the lobby waiting for William Burroughs. He comes in dressed to the nines in a dark gabardine overcoat, gray suit, and tie. I sit for a few hours at my post scribbling poems. He comes stumbling out of the El Quixote a bit drunk and disheveled. I straighten his tie and hail him a cab. It’s our unspoken routine.
“In between I clock the action. Eyeing the traffic circulating the lobby hung with bad art. Big invasive stuff unloaded on Stanley Bard in exchange for rent. The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.
“The elevator is slowgoing. I get off at the seventh floor to see if Harry Smith is around. I place my hand on the doorknob, sensing nothing but silence. The yellow walls have an institutional feel like a middle school prison. I use the stairs and return to our room. I take a piss in the hall bathroom we share with unknown inmates. I unlock our door. No sign of Robert save a note on the mirror. Went to big 42nd street. Love you. Blue. I see he straightened his stuff. Men’s magazines neatly piled. The chicken wire rolled and tied and the spray cans lined in a row under the sink.
“I fire up the hot plate. Get some water from the tap. You got to let it run for a while as it comes out brown. It’s just minerals and rust, so Harry says. My stuff is in the bottom drawer. Tarot cards, silk ribbons, a jar of Nescafe, and my own cup–a childhood relic with the likeness of Uncle Wiggly, rabbit gentleman. I drag my Remington from under the bed, adjust the ribbon, and insert a fresh sheet of foolscap. There’s a lot to report” (91).
Stanley Bard is the hotel manager. They have Room 1017 for 55 dollars a week to live at the Chelsea Hotel.
“Twenty-third Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues still had a postwar feel” (96).
The Manson murders occur.
“A week or two later I waltzed into the El Quixote looking for Harry and Peggy. It was a bar-restaurant adjacent to the hotel, connected to the lobby by its own door, which made it feel like our bar, as it had been for decades. Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O’Neill, and Thomas Wolfe were among those who had raised one too many a glass there.
“I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila” (105).
“The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive. My adventures were mildly mischievous, tapping open a door slightly ajar and getting a glimpse of Virgil Thomson’s grand piano, or loitering before the nameplate of Arthur C. Clarke, hoping he might suddenly emerge. Occasionally I would bump into Gert Schiff, the German scholar, armed with volumes on Picasso, or Viva in Eau Sauvage. Everyone had something to offer and nobody appeared to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.
“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumors of Oscar Wilde’s trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas, submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Thomas Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can’t Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ on our floor, and a speeding Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire while gluing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight.
“So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars” (112-3).
“This mission led us to the city’s Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Factory had moved from its original location on Forty-seventh Street to 33 Union Square. Brownie’s was a health food restaurant around the corner where the Warhol people ate lunch, and Max’s where they spent their nights.”
“Max’s Kansas City was on Eighteenth Street and Park Avenue South. It was supposedly a restaurant, though few of us actually had the money to eat there. The owner, Mickey Ruskin, was notoriously artist-friendly, even offering a free cocktail-hour buffet for those with the price of a drink. It was said that this buffet, which included Buffalo wings, kept a lot of struggling artists and drag queens alive. I never frequented it as I was working and Robert, who didn’t drink, was too proud to go.
“There was a big black-and-white awning flanked by a bigger sign announcing that you were about to enter Max’s Kansas City. It was casual and sparse, adorned with large abstract pieces of art given to Mickey by artists who ran up supernatural bar tabs. Everything, save the white walls, was red: booths, tablecloths, napkins. Even their signature chickpeas were served in little red bowls. The big draw was surf and turf: steak and lobster. The back room, bathed in red light, was Robert’s objective, and the definitive target was the legendary round table that still harbored the rose-colored aura of the absent silver king.
“On our first visit we only made it as far as the front section. We sat in a booth and split a salad and ate the inedible chickpeas. Robert and Sandy ordered Cokes. I had a coffee.The place was fairly dead. Sandy had experienced Max’s at the time when it was the social hub of the subterranean universe, when Andy Warhol passively reigned over the round table with his charismatic ermine queen, Edie Sedgwick. The ladies-in-waiting were beautiful, and the circulating knights were the likes of Ondine, Donald Lyons, Rauschenberg, Dali, Billy Name, Lichtenstein, Gerard Malanga, and John Chamberlain. In recent memory the round table had seated such royalty as Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Nico, Tim Buckley, Janis Joplin, Viva, and the Velvet underground. It was as darkly glamorous as one could wish for. But running through the primary artery, the thing that ultimately accelerated their world and then took them down, was speed. Amphetamine magnified their paranoia, robbed some of their innate powers, drained their confidence, and ravaged their beauty” (116-7).
“We drew on everything from Butterfield 8 to the French New Wave. She shot the stills from our imagined movies. Although I didn’t smoke, I would pocket a few of Robert’s Kools to achieve a certain look. For our Blaise Cendrars shots we needed thick smoke, for our Jeanne Moreau a black slip and a cigarette.
“When I showed him Judy’s prints, Robert was amused by my personas. ‘Patti, you don’t smoke,’ he’d say, tickling me. ‘Are you stealing my cigarettes?’ I thought he would be annoyed, since cigarettes were expensive, but the next time I went to Judy’s, he surprised me with the last couple from his battered pack.
“‘I know I’m a fake smoker,’ I would say, ‘but I’m not hurting anybody and besides I gotta enhance my image.’ It was all for Jeanne Moreau” (125).
“I looked around at everyone bathed in the blood light of the back room. Dan Flavin had conceived his installation in response to the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam. No one in the back room was slated to die in Vietnam, though few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation” (127).
Gregory made lists of books for me to read, told me the best dictionary to own, encouraged and challenged me. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new university” (138).
“‘I don’t want to sing. I just want to write songs for him. I want to be a poet, not a singer’” (142).
“Memento mori. It means ‘Remember we are mortal’” (155).
I call my granddaughter LouLou, so this next passage stood out to me: “I liked Loulou, a charismatic redhead who was the celebrated muse of Yves Saint Laurent, the daughter of a Schiaparelli model and a French count. She wore a heavy African bracelet, and when she unclasped it, there was a red string tied around her tiny wrist, placed there, she said, by Brian Jones” (156).
“Michael Pollard was usually by her side. They were like adoring twins, both with the same speech patterns, punctuating each sentence with man. I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments” (159).
“It was an infamous address, having housed the Film Guild Cinema in the twenties, and a raucous country-western club hosted by Rudy Vallee in the thirties. The great abstract expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hoffman had a small school on the third floor through the forties and fifties, preaching to the likes of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning. In the sixties it housed the Generation Club, where Jimi Hendrix used to hang out, and when it closed he took over the space and built a state-of-the-art studio in the bowels of 52 Eighth Street” (168).
“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. By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and ginned. He had to catch a plane to London to do the Isle of Wight Festival. When I told him I was too chicken to go in, he laughed solely and said that contrary to what people might think, he was shy, and parties made him nervous. 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. It didn’t matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio.
“‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.
“I can’t remember if I actually went into the studio, but Jimi never accomplished his dream. In September I went with my sister and Annie to Paris. Sandy Daley had an airline connection and helped us get cheap tickets. Paris had already changed ina year, as had I. It seemed as if the whole of the world was slowly being stripped of innocence. Or maybe I was seeing a little too clearly.
“As we walked down the boulevard Montparnasse I saw a headline that filled me with sorrow: Jimi Hendrix est mort. 27 ans. I knew what the words meant” (169).
“But the next night we would meet in Johnny’s room to console one another again. I wrote but two words in my diary: Janis Joplin. For she had died of an overdose in room 105 of the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, twenty-seven years old” (170).
Holy Modal Rounders
“It was like being at an Arabian hoedown with a band of psychedelic hillbillies. I fixed on the drummer, who seemed as if he was on the lam and had slid behind the drums while the cops looked elsewhere. Toward the end of their set he sang a song called ‘Blind Rage,’ and as he slammed the drums, I thought, This guy truly embodies the heart and soul of rock and roll. He had beauty, energy, animal magnetism” (171). That man turned out to be Sam Shepard “the biggest playwright off-Broadway. He had a play at Lincoln Center. He won five Obies!”
“I was also writing more pieces for rock magazines–Crawdaddy, Circus, Rolling Stone. This was a time when the vocation of a music journalist could be an elevated pursuit. Paul Williams, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and Sandy Pearlman were some of the writers I held in esteem. I modeled myself after Baudelaire, who wrote some of the great idiosyncratic critiques of nineteenth-century art and literature” (178).
“I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll” (180).
…”but then I remembered Lenny Kaye had said he played electric guitar. I went to see him.”
“With a nod to Brecht, I decided to open the reading singing ‘Mack the Knife.’ Lenny played along” (181).
“We finished with ‘Ballad of a Bad Boy’ accompanied by Lenny’s strong rhythmic chords and electric feedback. It was the first time an electric guitar had been played in St. Mark’s Church, provoking cheers and jeers. As this was hallowed ground for poetry, some objected, but Gregory was jubilant.”
“I was bombarded with offers stemming from my poetry reading. Creem magazine agreed to publish a suite of my poems; there were proposed readings in London and Philadelphia; a chapbook of poems for Middle Earth Books; and a possible record contract with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records. At first this was flattering, and then seemed embarrassing. It was a more extreme reaction than had greeted my haircut” (182).
“I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. He tattoos lightning bolts on the ears of his horses so the sight of them will remind him of this as he rides. I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine” (183).
“When we got to the part where we had to improvise an argument in a poetic language, I got cold feet. ‘I can’t do this,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to say.’
“‘Say anything,’ he said. ‘You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.’
“‘What if I mess it up> What if I screw up the rhythm?’
“‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.’
“In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life” (185).
“An important new presence entered Robert’s life. David had introduced Robert to the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. John McKendry was married to Maxime de la Falaise, a leading figure in New York’s high society. John and Maxime provided Robert with an entrance into a world that was as glamorous as he could have wished for. Maxime was an accomplished cook and hosted elaborate dinner parties where she served obscure dishes taken from her knowledge of centuries of English cooking. For every sophisticated course presented, there was equally well-spiced repartee served up by her guests. Those typically seated at her table: Bianca Jagger, Marisa and Berry Berenson, Tony Perkins, George Plimpton, Henry Geldzahler, Diane and Prince Egon von Furstenberg” (189).
“Being allowed to lift the tissues from these photographs, actually touch them and get a sense of the paper and the hand of the artist, made an enormous impact on Robert. He studied them intently–the paper, the process, the composition, and the intensity of the blacks. ‘It’s really all about light,’ he said” (190).
“I never anticipated Robert’s complete surrender to its powers. I had encouraged him to take photographs to integrate into his collages and installation, hoping to see him assume the mantle of Duchamp. But Robert had shifted his focus. The photograph was not a means to an end, but the object itself. Hovering over all of this was Warhol, who seemed to both excite and paralyze him.
“Robert was determined to do something Andy had not yet done. He had defaced Catholic images of the Madonna and Christ; he had introduced physical freaks and S&M imagery into his collages. But where Andy had seen himself as a passive observer, Robert would eventually insert himself into the action. He would participate in and document that which he had previously only been able to approximate through magazine imagery.
“He began to branch out, photographing those he met through his complex social life, the infamous and the famous, from Marianne Faithfull to a young tattooed hustler. But he always returned to his muse. I no longer felt that I was the right model for him, but he would wave my objections away. He saw in me more than I could see in myself. Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, ‘With you I can’t miss’” (192).
Separate Ways Together
“It seemed like Allen was always on the road with Blue Oyster Cult…”(213).
Todd Rundgren and Bebe Buell [We now know what this coupling produced]
Holding Hands With God