The first encounter I had with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe was nearly five years ago. I was going through an intense stage of reading every music-related memoir I could get my hands on, and that meant spending a lot of time wandering the aisles of the entertainment section in any given bookstore. I’d gone through How Music Works by David Byrne and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes and 1963: The Year of the Revolution by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan, but it was Patti and Robert’s shining faces on the cover of Just Kids that changed it all. I felt their eyes pierce my soul from their place on a shelf above my head, and I grasped the book and bought it without giving it a second thought. Something about them spoke to me, and it only took a few pages for my life to become intertwined with theirs. I’ve spent the subsequent years allowing their legacies and words and works to guide me, and they’ve never led me astray.
When I think of Patti and Robert, I see the two of them in their Brooklyn apartment, spending their nights listening to record after record, sharing their art supplies and their hearts and their work. I see them worming their way into the back room of Max’s Kansas City, fueled only by Robert’s intense desire to be accepted into Andy Warhol’s circle. I see them taking photographs with Sandy Daley in the Chelsea Hotel. I see them threading skull-shaped beads onto leather cord and exchanging the jewelry as if the necklaces were a physical representation of their connection – ‘til death do us part. I see their bodies connected by millions of thin red threads that could never be cut in two, the pair of them destined to stay with one another in life and in whatever they believed would come after. I see their desire to bare their souls to each other and to the world. I see the safe haven they created out of creativity and passion and emotion. I see their dreams as vividly as I see my own.
In many ways, it’s through Patti and Robert that I see my past and present and future. Their need to create eclipsed everything that hurt or threatened to tear them away from what mattered. They were persistent and determined. They followed their deepest urges and they spoke their own truths. They pushed through what held them back, and they released the chains on their ankles so they could dance with the visions they saw behind their eyes. They were messy and angry but they were also full of love and adoration for one another and for themselves and for the world. It is because of them that I feel like I can do the same, no matter how small my steps are or how quiet my voice is or how many steps there are left to take.
These are two people that I carry with me wherever I go. They are the background on my phone and the voices in my head and they often feel like my breath and my blood and my bones. I am always searching for ways to bring them closer to me, and the easiest way to do that is through their art. They documented their relationship and their lives in a way that allows me to sink closer to the core of their existence and to pull out the things I need to fill my soul. I’m in the midst of an intense period of revisiting their works and incorporating their whispers into my life, and I can’t help but want to share them with everyone around me. This time I’m doing it with music, too.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985 and ‘Seven Devils’ by Florence + the Machine
I think Robert’s self-portraits are the most direct route to his mind. They evolved immensely over his artistic career, moving from shy and bashful to full-on and unrelenting. This one references his Catholic upbringing and obsession with religious imagery, and the black and white only heightens the sense of darkness that brims beneath the surface. His stare is defiant and challenging, but you can’t help but want to know what his world is like. Florence + the Machine’s ‘Seven Devils’ is a direct line to Mapplethorpe’s own offering. Rather than rejecting hidden desires and heavy thoughts, the lyrics embraces their power and turns them to something beautiful. I often think that Robert did the same.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulips, 1986 and ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys
The floral portraits stand in stark contrast to Robert’s more brutal work, but they exhibit a mastery that could only come from his hands. They are delicate and balanced, but they speak volumes. The tulips seem to be holding themselves back, waiting for the perfect moment to fall apart, and yet they remain poised and beautiful. I chose ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys for the very first lyric – We were in bloom – as well as the fact that it exhibits a lot of the same qualities as Robert’s photo. It’s subtle yet weighty, it’s quietly powerful, and it moves perfectly within the realm of Robert’s artistic vision.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid of Patti Smith, 1973 and ‘Lightning Bolt’ by Jake Bugg
Two years ago I took this photo into a tattoo parlour and got the same lightning bolt tattooed on my own knee. It was a way to make physical my connection to Patti, and to intensify my connection to Robert through her. The picture is beautiful, a split-second representation of their love and their art and the life they created together. Patti holds herself still, but her eyes give away the need she has to act and to set herself free. Jake Bugg’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ is an obvious choice, but I also like that the lyrics explore the idea of allowing things to fall together, of taking chances, of trying your luck. Both Patti and Robert played with fate, and and this track embodies that.
Patti Smith, Frida Kahlo’s Bed, 2012 and ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths
Patti’s affinity for Frida Kahlo is just another reason why I feel so drawn to her. I’ve been dying to visit Kahlo’s house in Mexico City for ages, and I like that I’ll be following in Patti’s footsteps when I finally end up there. Her photographs celebrate the mundane and the everyday, highlighting the magic of a place where an artist spends most of her time or the monumentality of being in a space that was once occupied by someone you admire. ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths is haunting and sad, but I think that embodies Frida’s ethos as well as Patti’s life. There is beauty even in the darkest feelings, and I like the artists that attempt to chase that.
Patti Smith, Hermann Hesse’s Typewriter, 2003 and ‘Oxford Comma’ by Vampire Weekend
Not long ago I was deeply moved after reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, and finding this image felt like another tiny way to intertwine myself with Patti. I like knowing that we read and see and chase the same things, and this only added another thing to the list. I am also desperately missing my own typewriter, which is sitting in Canada while I attempt to get the same magic out of a laptop in Leeds. Stumbling upon this photo instantly made my hands ache for the clack of the keys and the act of throwing all my digital technology to the side just to focus on the act of writing, and I am relishing in the feeling of being filled with desire, even if it’s a simple craving. ‘Oxford Comma’ is not necessarily an ode to the act of writing, but instead an unpacking of the English language, and I like that it holds the same curiosity as Patti does.
Patti Smith, Robert’s Slippers, 2002, and ‘Terrible Love’ by The National
This photo moves me in ways that I can’t always wrap my head around. Taken thirteen years after Robert’s death, the image fossilizes a love that endures even past the physical realm of existence. The slippers make me thing of the journeys they took together, of the discussions they had about the future, of the tensions between the two of them that still left room for love. In ‘Terrible Love,’ The National encapsulates the difficulties of love and devotion, while also reinforcing the need for partnership. Much of the song is punctuated by the lyric It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders, and that single line perfectly describes how difficult it must be for Patti to continue living on without her partner in crime and the man who helped her believe she could be an artist.
Patti and Robert gave the world to themselves instead of asking politely for it. They created their own reality instead of allowing their narratives to be inserted into a story they didn’t like. They found the best in each other, and they acknowledged that their best also included their struggles and fears and doubts. I like that I wear them across my heart. I like that I hold them up like a torch in the darkness. I like that I can’t shake their presence. They’re in my orbit and I’m in theirs, and the least I can do is honour them in every way possible.