Saturday, January 29, 2011

Patti Smith’s Haircut


Patti Smith’s memoir ‘Just Kids’ is a study of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. They both seem driven to fill a void and to redefine themselves. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met just after Smith had adopted out a little girl when she was nineteen. While giving birth to the child she was left alone to suffer the labour of a baby in breech before a doctor came and gave her a caesarean section. The nurses called her “Dracula’s daughter” and refused to help her. The child was adopted out.  Smith’s life takes a turn from this point on. The child was born on the anniversary of the bombing of Guernica. Smith’s description of the experience evokes the sharp, aching agony of Picasso’s famous painting.

Patti Smith vows by a sculpture of Joan of Arc to “make something of herself”. Not long after that she is in New York. She is desperately alone until she meets Robert Mapplethorpe. The child, while only mentioned in the first chapters of the autobiography, seems to have presence throughout the text. The void where the child grew is then filled by the work of Smith and Mapplethorpe and their drive to create. In the song Kimberley she sings “I lit a match and the void went flash”. Like the big eyed and skinny Giacometti sculpture, one imagines Smith’s desire to fill the void.


The nurses in the hospital had threatened to cut off her long black hair. Long hair on women has always been a sign of sensuality and femininity. Sigmund Freud discusses “coupeurs de nattes” (cutters of plaits) in his study of fetish as “people who enjoy cutting female hair play the part of people who carry an act of castration on female genital organ”.  These nurses seemed intent on robbing her of more than just the child she carried. They wanted to punish her seemingly immoral sexuality and promiscuity. It is interesting that like her vow to the statue, Smith becomes this icon of androgyny the “misplaced Joan of Arc” of her lyrics. She cuts her own hair so that nobody can rob her of something she has severed herself. Smith cut her hair like Keith Richards who had taken effeminate long hair of male hippies to a sharp and jagged less natural place.  It was a defining moment where people started to acknowledge her at Max’s Kansas City. 


Smith and Mapplethorpe were ‘Just Kids’ saving money for chocolate milk and phone calls home.  However, when we listen to her album ‘Horses’ we hear a thundering power and defiance.  In the song ‘Kimberly’ Smith refers to “little sister”. However, the references to childbirth seem much too acute to be about a sibling born. We hear how “the sky is falling”, “the fates are calling”, “the sea rushes up my knees like flame” and specifically “baby I remember when you were born. It was dawn and the storm swelling in my belly and the sky split and the planets shift”. These apocalyptic images evoke the pain of labour and the defining moment of her life before and after the child’s birth. She is a mother with battle scars but no baby: a violent rage that can be channelled into creation.  Smith challenges those nurses who refused to help her, the neighbours who sniggered at her growing belly and the kids at school who ignored her.  Her poetry and music fill the listener with that same indignation. We hear it when that drum beat speeds up like a galloping heart beat in ‘Land’ and Johnny starts “smashing his head against the locker” and “laughing hysterically”. Someone told her when she cut her hair that she looked androgynous. She didn’t know what that meant but thought it meant “both beautiful and ugly at the same time”. In her work Smith has shaped this place of ambivalence. She turns the ugly, empty void into a melancholy, angry beauty. 


In her memoir, Smith takes full ownership of her decisions.  At the start of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, Smith explains “I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent.” She wrote of how carrying a child “opened the skin of my belly”. She revealed to Mapplethorpe “fresh red scars crisscrossing my abdomen”. He was able to help her slowly conquer her “deep self consciousness”. While the physical child was gone, Smith and Mapplethorpe begin an artistic collaboration that demanded to be fed. 


Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe ebbs and flows over twenty years. Mapplethorpe comes to terms with his homosexuality. Their relationship takes a more platonic turn and Smith marries and has children with another man. Tragically, Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989. The last time Smith sees him she is pregnant with her second child. He says to her ruefully “We never had any children”. Smith replies “Our work was our children”. Prophetically in the song Land, Smith wrote of Johnny’s body disintegrating and that “Nobody heard, No one heard that cry, No one heard (Johnny) the butterfly flapping in his throat”. On the night Mapplethorpe died in 1989, Smith heard his breath on the telephone before he died. 

The last pages of the memoir are filled with the poems she wrote for Mapplethorpe’s funeral, pictures he had taken of Smith and lastly a picture of a young girl at his desk. The caption below reads Delilah in 2010. In a memoir that seemed shaped by the cutting of hair, Delilah the famous biblical hairdresser who castrated Samson of his powerful head of hair seems an ironic and poignant name for the girl at the end of this book. The story Smith tells is that some years ago, Mapplethorpe had sat next to the girl’s mother and had played with Delilah's older brother on a plane. The mother had admired his work and thought he was a lovely man so bought his desk when his furniture was auctioned after his death. The mother more recently read an early edition of the Smith’s memoir. Smith wrote of her regret in not keeping Mapplethorpe’s desk. So the desk, a place in which you work and create became lost and found and with it came a teenage girl working away at it. It is almost as though she is the lost child of Smith and Mapplethorpe. The desk with all its little compartments that would have stored the silver skulls or saint’s pictures or little memories of the process of creation between Smith and Mapplethorpe now becomes like the scar across Smith’s belly. It is the remains of a creation that exists and lives and breathes without its creators. The memoir itself seems like an explanation—an elegy to the lost child of 1966 that seems to haunt their work.

Anna Newbold

5 comments:

  1. I never knew the story of the birth of Patti's first child. If I could, I would go back in time and punish those nurses. How dare they judge, terrorize, threaten and demean a young girl needing love and support. The cruelty is beyond my comprehension. She has moved ahead with her art and her purpose yet I am certain she is haunted by the memory and the surrender of her daughter in such an ugly way. Makes me feel like crying right now, 50 years after the experience

    ReplyDelete
  2. I never knew the story of the birth of Patti's first child. If I could, I would go back in time and punish those nurses. How dare they judge, terrorize, threaten and demean a young girl needing love and support. The cruelty is beyond my comprehension. She has moved ahead with her art and her purpose yet I am certain she is haunted by the memory and the surrender of her daughter in such an ugly way. Makes me feel like crying right now, 50 years after the experience

    ReplyDelete
  3. I never knew the story of the birth of Patti's first child. If I could, I would go back in time and punish those nurses. How dare they judge, terrorize, threaten and demean a young girl needing love and support. The cruelty is beyond my comprehension. She has moved ahead with her art and her purpose yet I am certain she is haunted by the memory and the surrender of her daughter in such an ugly way. Makes me feel like crying right now, 50 years after the experience

    ReplyDelete
  4. I never knew the story of the birth of Patti's first child. If I could, I would go back in time and punish those nurses. How dare they judge, terrorize, threaten and demean a young girl needing love and support. The cruelty is beyond my comprehension. She has moved ahead with her art and her purpose yet I am certain she is haunted by the memory and the surrender of her daughter in such an ugly way. Makes me feel like crying right now, 50 years after the experience

    ReplyDelete
  5. Though I never had a child & gave it up for adoption like Patti.....my mother routinely chopped my beautiful, thick, long hair off, giving me a dutchboy bob, when I was young. After turning 18, i warned mother she would never touch my hair again.
    Up until now, Ive chopped my own hair....however, I feel comfortable this year to give up control & have a woman style it this summer.
    Thank you Patti for sharing your talents!!!

    ReplyDelete