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Patti Smith: Family Life, Recent Loss, and New Album 'Gone Again'

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What did they make in this factory besides piss?
They made baby buggies. I was a baby-buggy bumper-beeper inspector. [Laughs] You know those beepers on the buggies? I had to beep them to make sure they worked. But I kept getting demoted. I actually liked my lowest job – I had to inspect the pipes they used for the handles on the buggies – because I could take my copy of [Rimbaud's] A Season in Hell down in the basement and read.

How long did you last at the factory?
I only worked there in summers. I wanted to make money to go to college. It was just a schoolgirl thing.

But it wasn't written with a thought for anyone other than myself. That's why it's got that energy. When I wrote that piece, I didn't have any compassion for anybody else. I was fresh from having lived it, being ridiculed by those people, pushed around and roughed up.

Now I look at those same people with some compassion. I can imagine what their scenarios could have been: Maybe they were divorced, had five kids to take care of, nothing to look forward to. But I was 16, and I was concerned with myself.

Your new book about Robert Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea, is an almost mystical narrative written in an elegant, romantic style of prose, unlike any of your other published work.
That's because hardly any of my '80s work has been published. I spent every day of the '80s working on my writing, and I actually wrote . . . I hate to call them novels, more like novella-type pieces. And this particular work comes out of that. One morning I'd just sent Jackson off to school; it was about 7:30 in the morning, and the phone rang. I knew what it would be. It was Robert's brother; Robert had passed away.

I was watching A&E at the time. They had a long series on the Romantic poets, so I was deeply into Shelley and Byron. At the time he called me, I was actually watching the movie version of the opera Tosca, but when that was over, I was going to get my Romantic-era dose. I knew Robert was dying; I was on vigil that night. I had wept quite a bit in those last two years. So I just sat there and then became immediately energized. I felt rushes of energy, nearly chaotic. But I kept it together and started writing. And I didn't stop. Every morning after Jackson went to school, while Fred was sleeping, from March to May [1989], I worked on this.

The book describes a young man, M, undertaking a final journey before his death, but it does not recount Mapplethorpe's art or life in a literal sense.
No, it's encoded. It's not really about Robert, who had AIDS, and how he battled it. It encodes his process as an artist and things I knew about him, his childhood. The uncle in the piece is [his patron and mentor] Sam Wagstaff. Robert was very into the surrealists, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst – the idea of objects in boxes, making altarpieces. So the passenger M is also much like that.

Was it hard for you, after Mapplethorpe's death, to see him demonized by conservative politicians and right-wing activists who targeted the explicit sexuality in some of his work?
I thought it was ludicrous. If Robert was alive, he would have found it annoying. But he would also have been heartbroken by the idea of [Sen.] Jesse Helms introducing Robert's pictures of children – he photographed children beautifully and in no unnatural way – as examples of child pornography. He would have wept over that.

Robert didn't like controversy. He didn't do his work politically. He was a pure artist. When he photographed two men kissing or a man pissing in another man's mouth, he was trying, as Jean Genet did, to portray a certain aspect of the human condition nobly, elegantly. I know the kind of man he was. If someone said, "This picture of a cock offends me," he would have taken it down and put a flower up. Because to him they were the same photograph. And they were. Robert's photographs of flowers were very evocative.

He had no problem with labeling his work. The small body of S&M photographs that he had, he put in a portfolio called X. He agreed with stickers that said one had to be over 18 to walk into a room that had this work. It was not for everybody – he knew that.

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Song Stories

“Love Is the Answer”

Utopia | 1977

The message of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" proved to be a universal and long-lasting one, which Utopia revisited 10 years later on this ballad. "From a lyrical standpoint, it's part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love," Todd Rundgren explained. "I'm not a Christian, but it's called Christian love, the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it's still a subject." Though "Love Is the Answer" wasn't a hit, a cover version two years later by England Dan & John Ford Coley peaked at Number Ten on the Billboard singles chart.

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