“It’s so hard for me to believe that 30 years have passed because he always seems so present,” Patti Smith told a sold-out auditorium at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this past Friday. She was referring to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died almost exactly 30 years prior to Smith’s performance, and that evening, through Smith’s tender readings of poetry and performances of songs, it felt as though Mapplethorpe had made himself present. Four floors above her was the show “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now,” which includes the artist’s black-and-white still lifes of flowers; his portraits of artists such as Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, and Cindy Sherman; and his stark, transgressive images of BDSM culture. His presence loomed over Smith’s event that evening—literally.
At the Guggenheim event, Smith, who is now 72, wore a sleek black blazer and nodded to her ruffian roots by pairing her top—a sophisticated garment befitting a memorial service—with beat-up, laceless combat boots. Throughout the performance, she read from her award-winning memoir Just Kids (2010), which focuses on her time with Mapplethorpe, and from her latest poetry book, Devotion (Why I Write), 2017. She also performed songs with accompaniment from Tony Shanahan, who has played in her band since 1996.
Smith conceded that the anniversary of Mapplethorpe’s death fell the day after the event, but she chose to recognize March 8, 1989 as the day she lost the artist because that was the last day she spoke with him. (Mapplethorpe died at age 42 from AIDS-related causes.) “I promised him that throughout my life I would magnify his work and his name as best I could,” she said. “Then I asked him if there was anything specific he wanted me to do. These were his last hours on earth . . . and he asked me if I would write our story.”
In response, Smith penned Just Kids, which took more than 20 years to complete. “I had never written a book of non-fiction before,” she continued, “but I knew exactly what our story was because when we were quite young and we rarely had any money to go to concerts or to go out, we mostly stayed home after doing our jobs. . . . Sometimes when it was really cold or we were bored, he would ask me to tell him our story if he couldn’t sleep. So I knew exactly what he meant.”
The night began with a slow-burning, soulful rendition of “Wing,” from Smith’s 1996 album Gone Again. “I was free,” Smith’s crisp, guttural voice repeatedly intoned, in reference to a passage from Just Kids about New York’s East Village neighborhood during the 1980s where Smith describes having no place to sleep, bumming around all day, and taking delight in her bohemian lifestyle. The audience delighted in hearing Smith discuss a favorite recipe of hers—and a least favorite of Mapplethorpe’s—from the time when the two lived together at the Chelsea Hotel: lettuce soup. “What you do is, you get day-old lettuce and some bouillon cubes,” she said. “You boil some water, take the dirty leaves off the lettuce and cut it in four, put some bouillon cubes in it. When it comes to a boil, you throw all the lettuce in there for a few seconds, simmer for a few seconds, turn off the stove, and serve.”
Smith has a reputation for her lyrical, mournful way of speaking, and perhaps the evening’s most tender moment came when she spoke of a coffee table book about Michelangelo’s sculptures that Mapplethorpe owned. Reading her 2018 poem “The Boy Who Loved Michelangelo,” Smith said, “We would look at it for hours. He always said that had he lived in that era, he would have been a sculptor. He was only 20 then, and he wasn’t taking photographs yet, but in a few years he would accomplish his love for sculpture through photography.”
Over the course of the evening, Smith acknowledged that she, in part, owed her career to Mapplethorpe. “Robert wanted to be successful, but I didn’t care—I just wanted to be a starving artist and a genius,” she said through laughter. “The beautiful irony is that . . . [Just Kids] has eclipsed everything else I’ve ever done. And it’s exactly what Robert wanted for me.” The opening chords of Smith’s 1978 song “Because the Night” began, and a number of audience members stood up and started dancing. Toward the end of the song, Smith went off-script and ad-libbed an emotionally felt exclamation: “Because the night belongs to Robert!”