Patti Smith And New York.
Above Photo: Screenshot of Patti Smith onstage.
I recently watched an excellent documentary by Stephen Sebring called Patti Smith: Dream of Life.
Produced in 2008 it was put together from ten years’ worth of video footage of Smith going about her life, and it won awards at International Film Festivals when it appeared.
During my muscial development I loved two of Patti Smith’s albums – Horses (produced in 1975) and Easter (in 1978). I’ve even selected a track of hers – Dancing Barefoot – as part of the soundtrack for the film based on my book Bombed Out!, if we can get the rights to it (and if we can ever get the film made).
The soundtrack to the documentary contained some great Patti Smith music, and I also really liked the moody black and white camera work, which, with her narrative style, sometimes made me forget it was watching a documentary and made me feel I was watching a film.
Smith had her life story summary out of the way very quickly, bringing us back to New York with her in 1996. New York is where she felt creatively inspired by her environment, and she retained a deep love for the city from her younger days there. She had always wanted to be free from the confines of her family’s rural American existence; the factory, square dances, the withering orchards – she wanted to become an artist, and a poet, which is why she originally went to New York in 1967.
I liked the lyrical content of her everyday speech, which was thought-provoking and beautiful.
There were a few amusing anecdotes in there too. Smith said in her early guitar-playing days she couldn’t tune her instrument properly so she’d ask guitarists did they want to play her Depression-era 1931 Gibson. Eager to do so, they’d tune it up before they played, so she always got it tuned without any professional embarrassment.
In her early days of learning to play, she used to badly jam along to a Bob Dylan guitar book. She said Bob Dylan himself tuned the guitar for her in 1975, and later in the film it was nice to see her playing with Dylan at gigs in the US.
She said in the 1970s there was nowhere in New York for the “New Guard” to experiment, until CBGBs opened in 1973.
She recounted her adoration of avant-garde author William Burroughs, and how honoured she was when he’d come to see her play at CBGBs; and what an inspirational impact he’d had on her music.
During “this amplified period of existence” Smith and her artistic group of friends tried to raise aspects of Art, Poetry and Rock & Roll, and they saw Burroughs as their inspirational “father”
There was a lot of death in the documentary. Her lover Robert Mapplethorpe’s, her brother’s, her husband’s, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s, William Burroughs’, and also lots of tomb-visiting. She kept some of Mapplethorpe’s ashes in an ancient urn in her house. We saw her visit William Blake’s tomb in Islington, London, Allen Ginsberg’s tomb in Rome (at the foot of Shelley’s), and we saw her clambering all over Rimbaud’s tomb in France.
I suppose my biggest surprise in the documentary was seeing her love of life and deep sense of joy come through so strongly. I didn’t know anything about her private life before I watched it, but for some reason I always thought of Patti Smith as over-serious, desiccated and humourless, which is stupid really, and it was something the documentary really blew away.
There was some touching footage as Smith showed one of her few childhood possessions: a home-made dress. Pride and happiness lit her face as she recalled her childhood.
It was also interesting when she visited her parents at their family home – clearly a loving relationship full of happy memories.
My one criticism was the documentary seemed a little disjointed towards the end – it didn’t seem to go anywhere and I thought it could have been better edited. Maybe that was the weight of ten years’ worth of video footage, a lot of which needed to be crammed in somehow.
That said, I learnt a lot from the documentary, and it contained some interesting and candid footage of Patti Smith’s remarkable life.
Buy a signed copy of Bombed Out! here: http://www.bombedoutpunk.com/buybook.php