Patti Smith: An American Experience

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.

She helped put New York’s punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map. 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.

Patti Smith: 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.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

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.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life (Trailer)

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Living Painfully Lonely Lives

Living Painfully Lonely Lives

Solitude and Isolation

In the 2000 film Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays an obsessive, clock-watching businessman, Chuck Noland, who by an unexpected misfortune finds himself stranded on an isolated Pacific island. Noland copes with his four years of social disconnection and loneliness in part by befriending a volleyball, which he names Wilson. He jokes with Wilson and confides in Wilson and mistreats Wilson, and at one point he even kicks his companion out of their cave like an angry spouse. When he finally and irretrievably loses his volleyball to the ocean currents, he cries, “I’m sorry, Wilson!

Many of us might have had daydreams of fantasys about living alone, far from the commotion and pressure of modern life. But we should watch what we wish for, because in fact most of us would not fare well in such isolated conditions. This has been shown time and again: people who live lonely and disconnected lives, even smack in the middle of a modern metropolis, are more depressed, more suicidal and have more physical illnesses than the rest of us. Such longing is especially poignant at holiday time. The lonely are in effect emotional throwaways.

And how do emotional castaways cope? What cognitive tools do we have to salve the pain of loneliness? We might well do precisely what Chuck Noland knew intuitively to do. We “invent” people to keep us company, humanizing anything we can humanize, pets, supernatural beings, possibly even something as unlikely as avolleyball.

There is a more unsettling possibility, as well. If the human mind is wired to make lonely people hunger for connection, as these studies show, then the inverse is probably also true. That is, people who are not lonely, who are secure in their circle of friends and family, may be more likely to dehumanize strangers; they have no motivation to make further connections. So perhaps it’s not entirely fanciful for an emotional castaway to befriend a volleyball, but for most of us the greater risk may be treating real flesh-and-blood humans as playthings.

Nicholas Epley, Adam Waytz, and John T. Cacioppo at The University of Chicago have conducted interesting empirical research about loneliness, which you can read here: Link.

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