Revisiting Patti Smith: A Dream of Life

Patti Smith: Dream of Life as An American Experience

Patti Smith: The Early Years

Patti Smith was born in Chicago in 1948 and grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey.  After graduating from high school, Patti did a brief stint as a factory worker, which convinced her to move to New York City to pursue a life in the arts.  Soon after her arrival, she connected with the young photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met while working at a book store.   This was a close friendship that she maintained until his death in 1989.   In 1969 she went to Paris with her sister and started doing performance art.  When Smith returned to New York City, she lived in The Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe, and they began frequenting the then fashionable Max’s Kansas City and CBGB nightclubs.

Audio: Bob Dylan/Farewell

Slide Show: The Chelsea Hotel/Dream of Life

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

She helped put New York’s punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map, at a time when New York’s East Village was becoming a burgeoning center of experimental artistic creativity.  She organized The Patti Smith Group and in 1975 released her debut album, Horses, to critical acclaim.   Produced by John Cale, the album was described as an original mixture of exhortatory rock & roll, Smith’s poetry, vocal mannerisms inspired by Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, and the band’s energetically rudimentary playing.  In 1976, Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas oversaw the Patti Smith Group’s second album, Radio Ethiopia, and the result was a more bombastic guitar-heavy record, tempered by the title cut, the height of Smith’s improvised free rock.

Grief and Mourning

After an almost nine-year hiatus, Smith returned to recording with the 1988 album Dream of Life, the work of a more mellow, but still rebellious songwriter.   Smith’s comeback album was co-produced by her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, with songs that included her call-to-arms, People Have the Power.  In 1994, her husband died of a heart attack at age 45. A month later, her younger brother (and former road manager), Todd, also died of a heart attack.  Her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe had already died of AIDS in 1989.  Determined to carry on as a tribute to the encouragement her husband and brother had shown her before their passing, Smith performed a string of opening dates with Bob Dylan in late 1995 and issued the intensely personal Gone Again in 1996.   The album offered a potent mix of songs about mourning and rebirth, reflecting Smith’s belief that the beauty of life survives death.

Dream of Life: A Film Finds a Rocker’s Heart

But another eight years would pass before her second artistic comeback, marked by a trio of acclaimed albums released in quick succession, which found her fighting her way out of a period of intense personal grief stemming from the loss of several of the most important people in her life.  The documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  What is it like to make a documentary about Patti Smith?  The godmother of punk, once all spatter and spit, and the documentary were a different project: not a nostalgia act, but an exploration of real things, like art and family and loss, and not the romantic death found in a rock-and-roll lyric, but the literal kind, the kind that took Smith’s husband away.

William Booth published a very thoughtful article about Patti Smith and the making of Patti Smith: Dream of Life in yesterday’s edition of The Washington Post:

“You might have something like Steven Sebring’s “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” a collaboration between an exceptionally tenacious fashion photographer and his subject, who is now 61 years old and trying to sort it all out.  “I was never interested in a rockumentary or a behind-the-scenes thing.  I have no interest in that,” says Smith of the film, which premiered at Sundance in January and will be shown this Friday at Filmfest DC with guest appearances by Smith and Sebring.  Next year the documentary will air on PBS.

Smith met Sebring for a photo shoot for Spin magazine in 1995, just as Smith was coming back into the public sphere after a long hiatus from performing.  During the years of her retreat to the suburbs of Detroit, she saw the deaths of her close friend and muse, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; her pianist, Richard Sohl; her husband, the musician Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5; and her brother Todd.  “Just year after year, month after month, of loss,” Smith says.  “I was pretty shattered as a human being and I had the responsibility of two young children and I had to really start over again.  The movie is really about experiencing joy in life in the saddest of times.

Sebring, alone, without a crew, filmed Smith for 11 years, using available light, and the photography is often quite beautiful by itself, a lovely home movie.  The result is a collage that is intimate, arty, pretentious, and a very respectful work by a documentarian who is open about his enthusiasms.  “They call her the punk poet prophet,” Sebring says.  “I feel like one of her soldiers, one of her messengers.”

Smith was never a traditional pop star.  She had only one big hit, the song Because the Night, which she wrote with Bruce Springsteen.  But beginning with her debut album, Horses, released in 1975, she created a raw, stripped-down garage sound that combined spoken words, screamed words and three chords per song.  Her downtown music, and her style as the androgynous boho in a Bob Dylan pose, has been cited as an influence by bands such as U2 and R.E.M.  She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, the organization praising “the delirious release of an inspired amateur who knew her voice conveyed more honest passion than any note-perfect rock professional.”  The French minister of culture named her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Literature.

When Smith was a teenager she worked in a factory and dropped out of college.  She was like Juno before the movie “Juno,” a pregnant teenager who gave up her baby for adoption.  She made enough money to move to New York and found her home in the Chelsea Hotel, which in 1970 housed William S. Burroughs, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe and some of the Warhol crowd.

So many of my mentors were quite a bit older than me,” Smith says.  “In my early 20s, I met Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and I was very privileged to meet these people and learn from them.  You forget about age if you’re creatively engaged.  A lot of it is being engaged.  It can be manual labor.  Charting the stars, sweeping the streets, it doesn’t have to be the arts.”

Later, Smith says, “If you live long enough, you’re a little old lady with your memories.”  We mention that we like the idea of revisiting our aging pop stars, if they still have something to say.  Is it possible they may even grow more interesting as they age?   Smith says, “Well, I’m always looking forward.  As a mother, you hope for a good future, a good future for your children.  And as an artist, always looking toward the next poem, the next song, the next film, the next idea.  It’s what the imagination is for.  I remember talking to Gregory Corso before he died.”  Corso was a founding member of the Beat generation of writers.  “Because he was so fearless. I asked, ‘Gregory, aren’t you afraid?’ ‘Only one thing,’ he said.  ‘I’m afraid of the collapse of the imagination.’  That’s something I think about every single day.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life (PBS/POV Trailer)

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One Response to “Revisiting Patti Smith: A Dream of Life”

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