The Coral Sea
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe might have been just a name whispered among us social defects that fill our pantheons with artists rather than sports figures and politicians had it not been for the fine gatekeepers of decency at the American Family Association, who took offense at his pictures of black penises and erotic self-portraits. Ever concerned for the misuse of tax dollars that could be with moral decency used for war, this group attempted to make an example of Mapplethorpe and the National Endowment of the Arts that sponsored the offending exhibition. Their attempts to beat down Mapplethorpe backfired of course; you can’t effectively whip a guy with a whip up his own ass.
His closest friend was Patti Smith. He took the photo for the cover of her debut album Horses, one of the most important records of the Seventies and the vessel in which flower power could finally whither and drop the seeds for punk. His photos offered a visual counterpart to Smith’s poetry. Both had a taste for the classics, as long as they were laced with strong beauty and transgression. The first line of Horses is Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine which embodies the idea of transgression better than any other. Transgressors do not pretend to be guiltless, innocents; far from it. Transgression implies the purposed crossing of lines in the name of beauty and love and existence. Many of the same wise gatekeepers that tried to hide Mapplethorpe’s images away would claim the very dumb virus that cut Mapplethorpe short in 1989 to be revenge from God upon the transgressors. Its sufferers would die for their sin. The truth is, we die for much less glamorous reasons than our sins. We die because of bacteria and bullet holes. The sins of looking at vulvic lilies and female bodybuilders and black cocks and rough sex are what make the journey to our inevitable worth making.
After his death, Smith penned “The Coral Sea,” an epic poem about Mapplethorpe taking a final voyage to see the Southern Cross before his death. People don’t write epic poems like they used to, I suppose, largely because we have been trained to bypass the poetic and the epic in life in favor of becoming good citizens and consumers. Patti Smith has never shown much interest in being either, and her voice in this reading of her poem, backed with supernova guitar ambience by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, has lost none of its rattlesnake bite, none of its gravity than it had in 1975. It can be safely said that Patti Smith can go overboard in her condor swoops through literary references and imagery, but it is an epic poem, you need to go long and deep in this game.
There are actually two performances on separate discs here with minimal differences. On the earlier one, Smith’s words are levied in even tones, controlled and smoking like the cocksure gaze she gives on that Horses cover. My money, however, is on the latter performance, where she seems less strident, adrift on those crashing waves of guitar. Shields is in equally fine form on both sets, seemingly taking a single cord through his labyrinth of effects, letting the signal crash and recombine into fireballs across an ocean sky, briefly illuminating the vastness of Smith’s sadness.
I shall refrain from offering snippets from the hour-long text because when spoken, they become a greater thing than when read. Smith almost becomes a rhythm section for Shields’ guitar, setting a pace, offering a backbeat, making the sway. As it proceeds, the sound in the recital halls must have been deafening for the audiences that witnessed these performances. Her words lap the shore of your consciousness, eroding the coast away until you are raw from experiencing her anguish and her love for her departed friend. Smith says in the liner notes that she could never get through the piece unaccompanied but that Shields offered an “all-encompassing landscape in which I could explain the emotions that drove me to write it” but I daresay that Smith, in turn, gave Shields some material over which he could expand his deep sense of sound, going beyond the elegiac but easily digested beauty he commanded in My Bloody Valentine into uncharted, blurry territory. I hope he takes a bunch of that reunion gig money and channels it into creating art like this.
So what of our dear departed Robert? How does he hope to fit into all this? His beauty was as singular as that of the two performers here. All involved – subject, poet and accompanist – all are masters of drawing you into their artistic vision, and the three twist like the lines in a rope, tighter and tighter until they become one. If Robert Mapplethorpe died for anyone’s sins, it was for those who never dare that kind of vision, who shy away from that dark impulse to find one’s own beauty in the things and people they love.