Smith visits, speaks volumes

By BenitaZepeda

By Stephanie Saviola and Benita Zepeda

When Patti Smith started performing rock n’ roll, she never wanted to be a singer. She didn’t know anything about microphones and couldn’t play any instruments. She just wanted to “stir things up.”

Today, many know her as a renowned poet, musician, activist and the “godmother of punk.” Perhaps the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe knew Smith best and saw her exactly as she is—an artist.

Columbia welcomed her to campus on Nov. 30 for the first installment of Conversations in the Arts, a series that features in-depth dialogue with notable cultural figures, to discuss her memoir “Just Kids,” which received the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was featured on The New York Times’ Bestsellers’ list.

“I can’t think of a more exciting visit, by any artist in the history of this long-running series,” said Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs.

In her book, Smith tells the story of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met in her early 20s and credits him as one of her biggest sources of support and inspiration.

“I knew him when no one else knew him,” Smith said. “We were quite young. We evolved together as artists and human beings and went through a lot together. He knew I would be able to tell the story of how he evolved as an artist and all the magic of our friendship.”

Smith said Mapplethorpe asked her to write their story the day before he died of AIDS in 1989. She recounted memories of her dearest friend, talked about her writing process and various obstacles she overcame while writing the memoir.

While the book was published almost two decades after Mapplethorpe’s death, Smith said it took her so long to complete as she relived memories of her and Mapplethorpe’s relationship, through the happy and sad moments, by rereading letters they wrote each other, rereading old diary entries and looking through photographs.

“Sometimes it was really heartbreaking,” Smith said. “Sometimes I would reread his letters or even things when we would have a fight and have to relive it and feel really bad. But sometimes I would be sitting by myself laughing because Robert was really funny, he was a real prankster.”

Throughout the writing process, Smith said there were large sections of the book she omitted to keep readers focused on her and Mapplethorpe. She said she hopes to rework some of the unused material into future book projects.

“I want to write something about the man who became my husband and give people a little sense of him because he’s gone and he was a very private man,” Smith said. “But I thought it would be alright to write about our earlier years. I thought if I approach the next book and talk about where songs came from, I could talk about him.”

Before the CITA discussion, Smith surprised students by performing an improvisational song with a student cover band and participated in a student Q-and-A session moderated by adjunct faculty member and WXRT 93.1 radio host Terri Hemmert.

“Patti represents everything that is right about the arts in our culture, about the citizen who speaks out when they see an injustice, about the person who dares to be different and dares to be themselves,” Hemmert said.

Smith performed with her guitar during the student Q-and-A and during CITA before ending the event with an a capella version of her 1978 song “Because the Night,” in which she encouraged audience members of the sold-out event to sing along.

While addressing students during the Q-and-A session, Smith spoke about the difficulties of being a young artist in today’s world, which she said lacks a strong cultural voice.

“People who were not only looking at what’s happening in our time, but projecting solutions, projecting a better world and projecting a change,” Smith said. “I really look to do something new, that addresses our world, that protests, that takes a stand and also entertains but does more than simply mirrors our times.”

Smith discussed the current celebrity influenced state of the media and expressed her hopes the future generation will look past that to make more significant, meaningful changes in the world.

“I don’t see a strong cultural voice right now,” Smith said. “I’m not saying that to put anyone down, it’s a transitional time. But I think younger generations are going to change that. Because I think [they’re] going to get tired of all that—that whole celebrity culture. It might be fun, but in the end, it’s ultimately shallow, it gets toppled.”

Hemmert noted in her introduction that Smith maintained a level of integrity throughout her career.

“Patti has gotten a lot of acclaim lately, and I am glad to say she hasn’t let it go to her head. She is still the wonderful person we know and love,” Hemmert said. “She gets called a lot of things, and I don’t want to call her that stuff, I just want to call her my hero.”

Although Smith is a renowned artist and cultural figure, she shied away from a question about the level of her own success.

“Being an artist is sort of like being bi-polar,” Smith said. “You think you’re a genius at night and then you wake up and think you suck… Self doubt is always going to come into play, but you can’t indulge in that too much.”