some patti history from the time of horses

[excerpt from Patricia Morrisroe's Robert Mapplethorpe]

In May 1975 Patti Smith played the Other End, and her idol Bob Dylan paid a symbolic and widely photographed visit to hear her -- the music-world equivalent of being blessed by the pope. Whether Smith would ever become as famous as Dylan, or prematurely self-destruct like Jim Morrison, was still a big question mark, but her transition from cultdom to stardom was already being closely tracked by the press. With a new drummer named Jay Dee Daugherty, Smith and her four-piece band spent much of the late summer recording Horses, which was produced by musician John Cale, one of the founders of the Velvet Underground. In addition to the surreal imagery of "Land," about the leather-jacketed Johnny -- Greil Marcus in The Village Voice compared the song's "terminal violence" to Buñuel's film Un Chien Andalou -- Smith's other lyrics touched upon lesbianism, suicide, UFOs, and Wilhelm Reich. Smith had devised the band's catchy slogan herself -- "three-chord rock merged with the power of the word" -- and certainly few rock singers would think of shouting "Go Rimbaud" and "Do the Watusi" in the same breath. James Wolcott in New York described Smith as a "phenomenal anomaly."

What Smith needed, then, for the cover of Horses was a photograph that captured her intriguing ambiguity, and while she could have selected almost any photographer for the job, she asked Robert Mapplethorpe to take the picture. "Robert and Patti talked about the cover endlessly," Janet Hamill recalled. "They'd just go on and on about it . . . Should it project a Vogue-Harper's Bazaar quality? Or was that too glamorous? Then they'd argue about what 'glamour' was. He had much more conventional ideas than she did, and ultimately I don't think she paid a lot of attention to him." Mapplethorpe was far from being a professional photographer, and unlike his mechanically minded father, he was intimidated by technical equipment. He didn't do any of his own printing and his black-and-white negatives were developed for him at a local photo lab. He didn't even have supplemental lighting, so he was confined to shooting his pictures in daylight; and as a result, he was always looking for interesting light and shadow effects.

Sam Wagstaff had purchased a new penthouse at One Fifth Avenue in the Village, a block from Washington Square Park, and since the apartment was bare and painted white, Mapplethorpe occasionally used it as a photography studio. He had recently noticed that midway through the afternoon the sun formed a perfect triangle on the wall, and whenever he though of the Horses cover, he kept envisioning that triangle.

On the day of the shoot Mapplethorpe and Smith spent several hours drinking coffee at the Pink Teacup on Bleecker Street. Then Mapplethorpe suddenly looked at his watch and panicked. "Let's get out of here," he told Smith, throwing change on the table and running from the café. Smith had no idea what was happening but she followed him as he sprinted down the street. "The light," he called out. "We can't lose the light."

When they reached Wagstaff's penthouse the triangle of light was still on the wall, but Mapplethorpe spotted an ominous patch of clouds in the distance. He was so agitated he had difficulty setting up his tripod, and it kept collapsing on the floor. Meanwhile, Wagstaff was busy in the kitchen making hot chocolate for Smith, and when Mapplethorpe saw her drinking a huge cup of it, he threw up his hands. "Great," he groaned, "Now your teeth are going to be all brown for the picture." Smith told him she wasn't smiling anyway, so it didn't matter. She already had a mental image of the portrait, in which she would blend together Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Frank Sinatra, and Jean-Luc Godard to create a French Symbolist-Las Vegas-Nouvelle Vague persona -- but she knew better than to explain any of this to Mapplethorpe. He had finally fixed the tripod and was pacing up and down the living room waiting for Wagstaff to leave the apartment so he could be alone with Smith. Finally Wagstaff said good-bye, and Mapplethorpe motioned Smith to stand in front of the wall. The afternoon had turned partly cloudy, and the triangle kept fading from view. "Don't you even want to use a comb?" he asked, staring at Smith's unruly black hair, but she refused to touch it.. Instead she flung an old secondhand jacket over one shoulder in a Frank Sinatra pose and imagined that she was the French actress Anna Karina being filmed by Godard. Mapplethorpe made sure to line up her body so that the tip of the triangle jutted out from her collarbone, like an angel's wing. He knew he had taken a good picture even before he saw the contact sheets.

Clive Davis [at Arista Records] did not share Mapplethorpe's enthusiasm for the image, and in fact, he was quite appalled by it. One of the unwritten rules of the record business was that "girl singers" were supposed to look sexy and pretty, or at the very least like girls; not only was Smith wearing a man's tie, but she hadn't even bothered to put on makeup or run a comb through her hair. Davis understood that Smith's music might not be for everyone, but while it was one thing to write a reggae song about suicide on a lesbian beach, it was commercial suicide to place a black-and-white photo of a sexually androgynous woman on an album cover. Furthermore, Smith even had a trace of dark facial hair on her upper lip.

Davis wanted to scrap the image entirely, but when Smith had signed her deal with Arista she had been given artistic control of her albums, and she refused to change the cover, even ignoring Davis's advice to allow the art department to airbrush the mustache. "I felt it would be like having plastic surgery or something," she said. "I remember the art department also wanted to change my hair into a bouffant. I told them 'Robert Mapplethorpe is an artist, and he doesn't let anyone touch his pictures.' I didn't know that for sure -- maybe he wouldn't have minded -- but I would have."

Years later, when Rolling Stone composed a list of "The 100 Greatest Album Covers of All Time," Horses ranked twenty-sixth. The stark black-and-white imagery provided a dramatic contrast to the psychedelic palette of most seventies rock albums, and Smith's swaggering unisex pose radically altered the prevailing feminine stereotype of "girl singers." "I saw Horses in a record store in Australia," said art critic Paul Taylor, who died of AIDS in 1992, "and immediately fell in love with the picture. I don't know anything about Patti Smith or about punk, but I bought the album on the strength of the photograph. It was elegant and totally modern, and I remember looking at the photo credit and wondering, 'Who is Robert Mapplethorpe?' "

Mapplethorpe's pictures had never received national exposure before, but when Horses was released in November, his photographs of Smith were in nearly every major magazine. "We had always dreamed about becoming successful together," Smith said. "It was all part of our grand scheme." Certainly she could not have expected more from a first album, and Horses was trumpeted in the press as a bona fide musical event. John Rockwell in the Times described it as an "extraordinary disc, every minute of which is worth repeated hearings . . . Horses may be an eccentricity, but in a way that anything strikingly new is eccentric. It will annoy some people and be dismissed by others. But if you are responsive to the mystical energy, it will shake you and move you as little else can."

Patti Smith had always been a favorite of rock critics, in part because both she and Lenny Kaye had been rock writers themselves, but also because she was rock's version of Sylvia Plath; she made a good story because there was something almost tragically predetermined about her career. A few years later, Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live would do a takeoff on Smith as "Candy Slice," a befuddled rock singer who belches and spits her way through a number about Mick Jagger before collapsing on the stage. Yet Smith's highs and lows were generally more exhilarating and terrifying than Candy Slice's stoned antics, and during the four-month national tour that followed the release of Horses, she dominated the stage one minute, then seemingly wilted under the pressure the next. She sneered, spat, and pranced around the stage like Muhammad Ali, punching her fists in the air and revving up the audience with a jubilant "We're gonna have a real good time together!" Her ragged voice could move from being soft and feminine to a full-throated wail. Her stage persona was an extension of the voice she often used in her poetry, and she ricocheted between girlish vulnerability -- "the kitten pick-up" -- to a swaggering masculinity. In between, she occasionally lapsed into incoherence; she would lose her train of thought, giggle, then stare into space.

At the Bottom Line in December, John Rockwell, after watching her slump to the floor and bang her head against the pipe organ, wrote a review for the Times in which he described the incident as a "'performance' terrifying in its intensity, like some cosmic, moral struggle between demons and angels." He pinpointed the performer's personality as her greatest liability: "She has always walked the line between genius and eccentricity, between the compelling and the merely odd, between art and insanity. The word 'insanity' may seem a little strong; this listener hasn't been inside Miss Smith's head. But she acts crazy sometimes, and if it's an act, it's an act that she plays so intensely that it's become its own kind of reality." The real question in Rockwell's mind was whether Smith could keep her art exciting without veering off into madness. In her poem "pinwheels" she wrote about a girl with "eyes like pinwheels," who was "waltzing on the edge of a stick." Clearly, the girl was Patti Smith, and every day she was dancing faster and more feverishly.

[Cf. Camille Paglia's comments on the Horses cover photo.]

Copyright © Patricia Morrisroe 1995

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