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Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Hippy in the Vatican

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Pope Francis and Patti Smith Pope Francis and Patti Smith

“I really believe that ­Robert sought not to destroy order, but to reorder, to reinvent, and to create a new order.” … Patti Smith on Robert Mapplethorpe

In his review at , Christopher Bollen waxed quite rhapsodic about rock ‘n’ roll legend Patti Smith’s 2010 book, “Just Kids”, in which the author shares a pretty embarrassing overload of personal stuff about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe

Bollen writes:

“In 1967, Patti Smith moved to New York City from South Jersey, and the rest is epic history. There are the photographs, the iconic made-for-record-cover black-and-whites shot by Smith’s lover, soul mate, and co-conspirator in survival, Robert Mapplethorpe. Then there are the photographs taken of them together, both with wild hair and cloaked in homemade amulets, hanging out in the glamorous poverty of the Chelsea Hotel.

“It is nearly impossible to navigate the social and artistic history of late ’60s and ’70s New York without coming across Smith. She was, as she still is, a poet, an artist, a rock star, and a bit of a shaman. But it is her friendship with Mapplethorpe where her legend begins—and like most beginnings, this one has been romanticized to the point of fantasy. How is it that two such beautifully feral-looking young people with no money or connections, who later would go on to achieve such extreme success—Smith with her music and Mapplethorpe with his photography—found each other? It is a myth of New York City as it once was, a place where misfits magically gravitated toward one another at the chance crossroads of a creative revolution. That’s one way to look at it. But Smith’s new memoir, Just Kids (Ecco)—which traces her relationship with Mapplethorpe from their first meetings to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods—paints a radically different picture. In this account, the two struggle to pay for food and shelter, looking out for each other and sacrificing everything they have for the purpose of making art…Smith left New York for Detroit in 1979 to live with the man she would eventually marry, the late former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, just as Mapplethorpe’s career as one of the most shocking and potent art photographers was reaching its apogee (his black-and-whites of gay hustlers, S&M acts, flowers, and children were headed to museum collections and a court trial for obscenity charges). Her book follows Mapplethorpe all the way to his death in 1989 from complications due to AIDS, but it’s mostly about two kids who held on to each other.”

Just Kids Patti Smith memoir cover artSmith’s autobiographical fairytale went on to win the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and became both a Publishers Weekly Top 10 and a New York Times bestseller. Essentially an homage to the eminently creepy Robert Mapplethorpe, the book opens with the death of the “artist” who’d become famous for his work in “underground bondage,” “urophagia” (consumption of urine), sadomacochistic BDSM and homoeroticism, among other twisted proclivities.

Nevertheless, Smith eulogizes Mapplethorpe as a groundbreaking cultural icon who helped liberate the art world from the “constraints” of an “evil censorship” based on an old “oppressive and repressive” Christian moral code that needed to go the way of the Dodo and that, thankfully, was swept into the dustbin of human history by avant-garde “artists” such as Mapplethorpe.

Did I mention that Mapplethorpe was also an apostate Catholic? Indeed, his mother, according to Smith, had even hoped he’d become a priest: “Robert’s mother dreamed of him entering the priesthood. He liked being an altar boy, but enjoyed it more for his entrance into secret places, the sacristy, forbidden chambers, the robes and the rituals. He didn’t have a religious or pious relationship with the Church; it was aesthetic. The thrill of the battle between good and evil attracted him, perhaps because it mirrored his interior conflict, and revealed a line that he might yet need to cross. Still, at his first holy communion, he stood proud to have accomplished this sacred task, reveling in being the center of attention.” (Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Page 106)

The love affair of Smith & Mapplethorpe evidently took root in 1967 when Smith arrived in New York and met a young Mapplethorpe in a bookstore. Noticing a necklace which resembled a scapular, he asked Smith if she was a Catholic. “No” was the answer, “I just like Catholic things.”

And here she is today…

Just three short years after the publication of Smith’s book about her life and times as Mapplethorpe’s live-in lover, she found herself starring in a show that couldn’t have been further removed from her early stomping grounds in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Patti Smith—the longtime girlfriend of Robert Mapplethorpe—found herself, incredibly!, performing at the Vatican’s annual Christmas Concert at the Conciliation Auditorium with the Pope’s own orchestra backing her up–the very same venue, by the way, where the “Godmother of Punk” will again perform this year (December 13, 2014), also at the invitation of Pope Francis, who apparently can’t quite get enough of a good thing.

Now, not to worry—this has-been hippy is not the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, and standing the holy place. A lame precursor, perhaps, but poor old Patti is just another act in the ongoing Franciscan freak show. Still, this surely is an abomination of the first water. Think of it: Just a couple of years ago Patti Smith published a glowing eulogy of a notorious pervert, whose work was in such blatant violation of obscenity laws both in this country and abroad that it landed him in regular hot water with the U.S. Congress, religious organizations such as the American Family Association, and even the University of Central England. But this is no problem for Pope Francis who personally invited Mapplethorpe’s biographer and former lover to perform for the people of Rome and the princes of the Catholic Church at Christmastime.

How awkward for everyone involved!

Then again, maybe there’s method to this madness. Having glanced just briefly at Patti Smith’s magnum opus, Just Kids, it seems Pope Francis may have actually read the thing and found a kindred spirit in its author.

For example, consider Patti Smith on prayer:

“My mother taught me to pray; she taught me the prayer her mother taught her. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. At nightfall, I knelt before my little bed as she stood, with her ever-present cigarette, listening as I recited after her. I wished nothing more than to say my prayers, yet these words troubled me… Not contented with my children’s prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own. I was relieved when I no longer had to repeat the words If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could say instead what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God…But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.” (Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Page 4)

Patti evidently likes to sort of “wing it” when it comes to prayer and chatting up God. But back in October of 2013 Francis himself ruffled a few feathers when he used one of his sermons to make essentially the same point: “I say to pray, I do not say to say prayers, because these teachers of the law [the Pharisees] said many prayers”

Patti is obviously no Pharisee!

And on the whole idea of religion and seeking out the many paths to God, Patti sounds like a part-time homily writer for Pope Francis. For example, she recently told Rolling Stone: “I left organized religion at 12 or 13, because I was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness. I have a very strong biblical background. I studied the bible quite a bit when I was young and continue to study it, independent of any religion, but I still study it…I believe there is good in in all religions. But religion, politics and business, all of these things, have been so corrupted and so infused with power that I really don’t have interest in any of it – governments, religion, corporations. But I do have interest in the human condition.”

In her book, Patti makes another reference that may well have attracted the attention of the Bishop of Rome. Speaking of her mother and her love of reading books, she writes: “When my mother discovered that I had hidden her crimson copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs beneath my pillow, with hopes of absorbing its meaning, she sat me down and began the laborious process of teaching me to read. With great effort we moved through Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss. When I advanced past the need for instruction, I was permitted to join her on the sofa, she reading The Shoes of the Fisherman …” (Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Page 6)

The Shoes of the Fisherman is Morris West’s 1963 novel about an exceedingly unconventional Pope who likes to sneak out of the Vatican at night dressed as a simple priest in order to get up close and personal with the people of Rome. The fictional pontiff nixes his own tiara as a gesture of his “great humility” and even announces his plans to sell off the Church’s treasures and property to help poor people in China. West’s “Pope of the People” also risks his reputation by maintaining a close friendship with a controversial priest named Father Telemond (an obvious Teilhard de Chardin type) with a penchant for heterodoxy.

The 1963 screen adaptation of The Shoes of the Fisherman starring Anthony Quinn is well worth a view if for no other reason than to discover whence this pope of “Hope and Change” might have gotten some of his best material.

Anyway, at the invitation of the Successor of St. Peter Patti Smith is now heading back to Rome to perform within a rolling stone’s distance from the bones of St. Peter—and this is evidently just fine with what’s left of the vast dysfunctional Catholic family around the world, starting with the papa himself. After all, Patti Smith did sing O Holy Night last year at the Vatican Christmas concert. So, there! No need to fasten millstones around the necks of any churchmen blessing this latest Vatican travesty. Patti Smith sang O Holy Night!

Besides, who are you to judge Robert Mapplethorpe or the hippy chicks who loved him.

Roma locuta est, causa finita est.

Last modified on Thursday, December 4, 2014
Michael J. Matt | Editor

Michael J. Matt has been an editor of The Remnant since 1990. Since 1994, he has been the newspaper's editor. A graduate of Christendom College, Michael Matt has written hundreds of articles on the state of the Church and the modern world. He is the host of The Remnant Underground and Remnant TV's The Remnant Forum. He's been U.S. Coordinator for Notre Dame de Chrétienté in Paris--the organization responsible for the Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres, France--since 2000.  Mr. Matt has led the U.S. contingent on the Pilgrimage to Chartres for the last 24 years. He is a lecturer for the Roman Forum's Summer Symposium in Gardone Riviera, Italy. He is the author of Christian Fables, Legends of Christmas and Gods of Wasteland (Fifty Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and regularly delivers addresses and conferences to Catholic groups about the Mass, home-schooling, and the culture question. Together with his wife, Carol Lynn and their seven children, Mr. Matt currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.