Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe shared a room at the Chelsea Hotel as they began to make names for themselves in their respective fields. They made an unlikely pair, if only because Smith's music reveled in finding poetry in chaos, where Mapplethorpe's photography often imposed order on potentially chaotic subjects, including Smith herself. Their connection, whatever its foundation, was undeniable, and eight years after Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS at the age of 42, Smith published The Coral Sea, a long poem recasting her friend's life and death in Smith's unmistakable Beat-inspired cadences. This two-disc set of the same name collects live performances of the work—one from 2005 and another from 2006—that find Smith backed by the sympathetic drones of My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields.
The two performances are different, but not that much. In each, Smith recasts Mapplethorpe's life as a deathbound sea journey to the Southern Cross, a conceit that allows her to fill the work with allusions to his photos ("a pale orchid crushed by a hand paler still"), make his vanity and unrepentant hedonism seem almost heroic, and stirringly mourn his death. It's a moving work, intensified by Shields' improvisational guitar and the way Smith's voice makes Mapplethorpe's particular story universal. "He was destined to be ill. Quite ill," she says early on. But aren't we all?