Friendships, especially those rare, romantic friendships that have a distinctively magical character, are almost never discussed or celebrated in art and culture. It's true that friendships are more about ebb and flow and subtlety and forgiveness, but we feel and need our friendships with the same ferocity as our noisier relationships with family and lovers. This usually absent attention is paid, abundantly and brilliantly, by punk poet/singer Patti Smith on her live spoken-word double disc The Coral Sea.
The album is the third in a series of profound tributes to Smith's friend, roommate and muse, the photography provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. Smith released a book titled The Coral Sea in 1996, and a decade later, on two occasions in London, she performed the spoken-word version in a collaboration with Kevin Shields of shoegazer-rock gods My Bloody Valentine. Shields' droney guitars and effects provide fitting accompaniment to Smith's long poem, both elements nuanced and layered in their bombast.
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Mapplethorpe himself, who shot Smith's iconic Horses cover (and plenty of lush gay-bondage scenarios), is well-shadowed, but Smith wrings out the sorrow and violence of his disease and death in the poem. She uses a banal-ish narrative, about the Mapplethorpe character "M"'s journey toward acceptance and death, to explore and elevate his physical and metaphysical pain. In this version of illness as metaphor, the form doesn't challenge, but Smith's punk charisma, emotional hunger and renegade approach work the poem into a mesmerizing narrative. Midway through the 2005 performance recording, Smith asks, "How should I be charged? Should I be charged for wanting so much, for wanting so much bounty, for wanting so much beauty? For re-arranging eyes? For being one with nothing?" Whether this is Smith on Mapplethorpe, Smith on death, Smith on Smith, or Smith on her own rare friendship with the photographer, it's splendidly apt.