November 4th represents a "bittersweet date" for Patti Smith. It is the birthday of her ex-lover Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of complications due to AIDS in 1989. It is also the anniversary of the death of her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith. Thirdly, it marks the birth of her Grandson. It was November 4th, this month, that Patti Smith arrived in Dublin to collect the Burke Medal for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts, in Trinity College Dublin.
Smith was bestowed with the Burke Medal for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts, because she has been a woman who, as described by the President of the Historical Society, Ronan Mac Giolla Rua, broadened "our understanding of the world". Indeed.
— MBAM (@mbamtl) November 4, 2016
It had been a year since I seen her last, in New York's Public library, where I gave her a copy of Brendan Kennelly's essay collection "Journey Into Joy". Brendan is another Trinity alumni and held the post of Literary Professor there for decades. Brendan also recently celebrated his 80th birthday in the very place I actually first met Patti many years ago, The Abbey Theatre, in Dublin City Centre.
Another recent Dublin artistic connection with Patti, was her involvement in the Reading Gaol Prison project in the UK. Reading Gaol prison has recently been opened to the public for the first time this year. Since July, artists, writers, and performers have courted audiences inside the prison to celebrate, remember and invoke the legend of Oscar Wilde, a legendary Dubliner. Smith held an event reading "De Profundis", the notorious and profound prison letter Wilde himself wrote.
November 4th, in this context, could do with a little instruction on how to cope with suffering. Taking occasion to review Wilde, it is rather illuminating to see how apt his work is. "Nothing in the whole world," he wrote, "is meaningless, and suffering least of all."
In 1967, Patti Smith moved to New York City from South Jersey. The rest has become legend. The photographs, the iconic black and white snapshots, captured by Smith's lover, soul mate, and partner-in-crime, Robert Mapplethorpe, still hold their potency. It is almost impossible to negotiate through the margins of social and artistic history of late '60s and '70s New York, without chancing upon either of them.
Mapplethorpe's legacy has been reinvigorated partly due to Smith's successful first memoir, "Just Kids", but also the recent HBO documentary "Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures". That initial memoir traced their relationship from their first meeting in a shop that Patti worked in, all the way to their days in the Chelsea Hotel, their tumultuous love life, intensely felt creative collaborations, the rock gigs, and that now lost Downtown New York Scene. My friend, and Chelsea Hotel resident to this day, retired Dancer, Merle Lister, many times told me how kindly and cheerful a neighbor Patti was. And Sam Shepard, too. She didn't like Sid Vicious, though. Vicious by name, Vicious by nature.
Patti is one of the leading critics of the cultural decline of the Downtown New York scene. Producing endless luminaries from Andy Warhol to RuPaul, Lou Reed to Susan Sarandon, Gary Indiana to Michael Musto, Vivian Gornick to Susan Sontag. And on. And on. She herself spent a decade living in Detroit when she opted out of public life to adhere to the duties and integrity Motherhood requires. In an interview with NME, Smith mourns the fact her daughter does not have the opportunities she herself had in the 60's and 70's. The formerly derelict areas she lived in have become high-end shopping areas. The ensuing prosperity of New York City has engendered in creating a difficulty for young creative people to develop a cultural voice there.
Penny Arcade, another New York counter-cultural icon, and who I recently caught up with in Dublin, described it. "This is the first time in the city that an entire population, the working poor, has been displaced," she once told the New York Times. "We're living in a world that hates individuality. It's heartbreaking. We're living in the golden age of stupidity, and while queers have taken up all their time with identity politics, and the biggest issue they see in the world is pronouns, there has been an unrelenting march to the right that they're completely unaware of."
"God made the world," wrote Oscar Wilde, "just as much for me as for anyone else."
Smith has become a champion for outsiders, empowering them to be themselves and to discard the stereotypes of gender that have been foisted on younger generations. Historically changing, socially constructed labels that have insufficiently served people for decades. Mapplethorpe, who died at the peak of his international acclaim, died of AIDS. His memory and work seems almost to be infused with Patti's time in New York. Mapplethorpe caused a sensation in particular with his nude photographs, which defined eroticism and homosexuality with a virtually relentless insistence and courage. The accessibility and fearlessness that Mapplethorpe approached the male figure, and in which they disclosed his own sexual fluidity, freedom, and complexity, even resulted in the confiscation of his photographs after an exhibition.
It was in Mappletorpe's memory, that Smith decided "Just Kids" should be written. As she promised him on his death-bed. To tell the story of their lives and work.
Smith, back in Trinity College, encouraged students to reflect on the difficulties and challenges that the world will present them, whether it is suffering and loss, hunger or being misunderstood. She invoked the advice she similarly issued to young people in a clip that went viral online, shot by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
On maintaining creative integrity and refusing to compromise - the best advice she ever got, was from none other than the late William S. Burroughs:
"Build a good name." She told the crowd. "Keep your name clean. Don't make compromises, don't worry about making a bunch of money or being successful -- be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency."
Like a flash, Smith came and went. As I looked around, there were many students enamoured with her presence and electrified with her benedictions. They reminded me of when I was younger and more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed with admiration in the presence of people I so irresistibly admired.
Just Kids, thought I. For now, thought I.