The artist Robert Mapplethorpe died from complications of AIDS in 1989. According to his great friend, Patti Smith, â€œHis mortal suffering was so profound that I wept through much of his illness. After his death, I wanted to give him something other than tears, so I wrote The Coral Sea.â€ Her epic poem was published in book form in 1996.
Smith attempted public readings of the piece, but found that she was unable to sustain a reading of the entire thing. It wasnâ€™t until she teamed up with Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) for a pair of concerts at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 2005 and 2006 that the true nature of her amazing achievement revealed itself.
The Coral Sea, a two-disc set released on the artistsâ€™ own PASK label, is a record of those two monumental performances. The concerts featured Smith reading her work, accompanied by Shields on guitars and effects. It is unlike anything that I have ever heard.
Art, not nature moved him
Nature, he had boasted, was meant to be redesigned
Opened and folded like a fan
The poem tells the story of Mapplethorpe, referred to variously as the sleeper, the traveller, or simply, â€˜Mâ€™, as he makes his heroic journey to the next world. In this case the voyage will take him to the Solomon Islands so that he might see the Southern Cross, which his beloved uncle had described to him, before he dies. He journeys aboard a ship through uncharted waters, experiencing the stages of death, from pain and defiance, to revelation and acceptance.
Smith could not have chosen a more compatible foil for this work than Kevin Shields. His work here is as majestic and awe-inspiring as the poem itself. Smithâ€™s recitation is not a reading, but a performance, and a brilliant one at that. From mournful to full of fury in the blink of an eye, it is perfectly paced, and perfectly set within the frame that Shields has lovingly created for it. The two performances presented here are different enough to each command your attention. The second is somewhat shorter, and Shields work is somehow more of a single piece, as if carved out of a great block of granite.
There is no point in presenting you with a track to listen to. This is a work that insists on being listened to from start to finish in one sitting. If you donâ€™t have the hour to simply listen, put if off for a time when you do. This album is not for dancing, or for driving, or for dusting. It is for listening with all of the attention that you can muster. It is hypnotic and harrowing, and you cannot help but fall under its spell.
There is no use trying to compare this to any music album of this, or any other year. I will say without reservation that from an artistic point of view, it is the most worthy accomplishment that I have experienced in a very long while.