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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Dylan Wins Pulitzer Prize: A Solitary and Beautiful Mind

Dylan Wins Pulitzer Prize: A Solitary and Beautiful Mind

I paid the price of solitude
But at least I’m out of debt.

Bob Dylan, Dirge

Bob Dylan Named a Pulitzer Prize Winner

Bob Dylan was named a Pulitzer Prize Winner on Monday, April 7, 2008. A Special Citation was awarded to Dylan for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.

Bob Dylan: i Is Another

I’m Not There is a visionary rendering of Dylan’s life and music that is as bold as possible, while never pretentious. It takes Dylan’s songs and the biographic details that we know of his life and mashes them up. Fevered interpretations resonate against one another to create an experience that is more like tumbling within the whirlpool of one of Dylan’s kaleidoscopic songs than watching anything remotely like a biographical movie. At its best, which is quite often, I’m Not There summons the sensation of what it must have been like to live in Dylan’s skin at crucial moments in his life. Simultaneously, the film makes it undeniable at every moment that you are watching a cinematic interpretation of “Dylan,” not the man himself.

At a certain point, Dylan as a solitary figure, extraordinarily beautiful and yet so alone, seems to hold the essence of I’m Not There, which takes its name from a song that is also, almost, “not there.” Toward the end of the movie we hear that song, which Dylan recorded with the Band in the summer of 1967. Its half-finished lyric is impenetrable and exquisite. Dylan’s delivery is garbled yet assertive, peppered with made-up words and seeming disconnections that ultimately shape themselves into a whole that’s both elusive and achingly complete. Regardless of how much you may already know about him, I’m Not There deepens and humanizes your understanding of Dylan.

A Bob Dylan Tribute: I’m Not There

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W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

In June 1946, Harvard University observed its long-awaited Victory Commencement. For the first time since the end of WWII, alumni and graduates had a chance to gather in Harvard Yard. The ceremony was a time for the University to appraise all the changes the war had caused, and the even more profound changes that peace was about to bring. Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had died. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the very highest level. President James Bryant Conant had consulted with President Truman about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

As if to symbolize that intimacy, the 1946 Commencement awarded honorary degrees to the Chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. More questionable was the choice of that year’s Phi Beta Kappa orator: Byron Price, who had served as Director of the Federal Office of Censorship, in charge of monitoring press coverage of the war. Price used the occasion to deliver a rather ominous exhortation to “the man of letters,” whom he accused, 10 months after the war ended, of still not doing enough for national morale. “How often,” he asked, “shall the seeker find between these myriad covers an ounce of literary beauty, or a thimbleful of spiritual elevation? We are served a fare of dissoluteness and destruction. We are asked to sneer at man and regard him as no better than the worm. We are invited to improve our minds by studying the endless sagas of criminals and harlots, moving in sordid surroundings, and worshiping only the flesh.”

Under Which Lyre

It was against this backdrop of war and peace, and a university caught between them, that W.H. Auden, that year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet, got up to deliver his own contribution to the festivities. If Auden was listening when Price issued his “commissar-like” advice to writers, he would have been revolted, but not surprised. In fact, his poem, Under Which Lyre, impishly subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times, was intended to be a retaliation against Price’s brand of official uplift. In 174 witty, neatly rhymed lines, Auden set out his prophetic vision of the challenges facing postwar America in general, and the postwar university in particular. Occasional poems usually fade pretty quickly, but even in 2007, the year of Auden’s centenary, Under Which Lyre remains one of his most charming and perceptive works.

Under Which Lyre begins by setting the scene, in language that is by by turns colloquial and quaintly literary. “Ares at last has quit the field,” Auden proclaims, invoking the Greek god of war. Drawing upon his memories of a bombed-out Germany, which he had visited in 1945 as an analyst for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he writes, “in their convalescent state/The fractured towns associate/With summer flowers.” He then turns to a less somber kind of postwar scene, one that his listeners at Harvard would have recognized with a laugh:

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

Yet even as Harvard returned to its civilian pursuits and petty vanities, with students struggling with the poems of Donne, and “professors back from secret missions” bragging about their adventures, Auden saw another kind of conflict beginning to take shape. This was the war between two opposing sensibilities, the two social and spiritual visions, that Auden named Apollo and Hermes. Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, became for Auden “pompous Apollo,” the patron saint of “official art.” Against him, Auden set Hermes, the trickster god, protector of thieves and liars, who is “precocious and undisciplined.” Both of these gods can make a kind of music, but Auden asks the reader to decide “under which lyre” he will take his stand.

The comedy of the poem lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the ruling spirit of what he called “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, Auden suggested, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts, of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too. Auden gives a wonderful catalog of the things these Apollonians want to impose: colleges where “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge,” with courses on “Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport“; poems that “Extol the doughnut and commend/The Common Man“; even processed foods: “a glass of prune juice or a nice/Marsh-mallow salad.” In short, Auden was already predicting the dullest, most conformist aspects of American life during the Cold War years, the kind of prosperous mediocrity that gave the 1950s a bad name.

Auden’s Commandments for Free Spirits

But if it’s impossible to dislodge Apollo from his throne, Auden suggested thay you can still follow Hermes in private. That is why the last stanzas of Under Which Lyre offer a set of commandments for free spirits who refuse to fall into line:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

His advice was half-joking, but only half. Auden was reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is superfluous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

Auden knew that a society run by Hermes would be a disaster; but a society without any followers of Hermes in it would be a true nightmare. That message makes Under Which Lyre a truly American poem, a defense of the individual against the masses. The continued life of Auden’s Phi Beta Kappa poem is a reminder that, when the generals and censors and other powers of the earth are forgotten, it is the mere poet who remains.

h/t to Adam Kirsch at The Harvard Magazine.

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