Saturday, March 22, 2014

Patti Smith: The Real Deal

I first came to appreciate Patti Smith five years ago through her debut release, "Horses," a seminal album from the golden age of rock music that had somehow eluded me. 

From the opening line ("Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine") I was hooked. I loved the way the opening track transitioned from a simple ballad to raunchy, fly-away rock, and ultimately to "Gloria." The rest of "Horses" was blessed with reggae inflections, soft, spare piano backing hypnotic verse, shades of punk and the street poetry of Lou Reed, and the undistilled rebel spirit of rock 'n' roll.  

For several years, "Horses" was my sole reference point for Patti Smith. Smith the human being was a blank slate until her National Book Award-winning autobiography "Just Kids" came out in 2010. I didn't jump at first, since I had already read more than my share of rock biographies, but when it became clear that "Just Kids" wasn't about shooting, snorting, and backstage antics, I bought a copy. As I read, I was intrigued by the number of timeless artists Smith rubbed elbows with in Manhattan in the late '60s and early-to-mid '70s and the Chelsea Hotel anecdotes, including an episode where a young Johnny Winter (who turned 70 last month) paced around a room nervously with superstitions of his imminent passing after the successive deaths of JimiJanis, and the Lizard King.

Though some artists are reluctant to discuss their roots, giving the false impression that they possessed magical powers from an early age, Smith's book went into detail about her influences, from Dylan to Jim Morrison to Arthur Rimbaud to Jackson Pollock. It was clear that she was first and foremost a fan and practitioner of art in multiple mediums; gaining notoriety in music was almost accidental.    

Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe was the heart of "Just Kids." They were
lovers and creative partners who met in Manhattan, young people scraping by on a shoestring budget hoping to make it, vibrating off the rich cultural milieu they'd stepped into. Intertwined with their romance was a deep, enduring friendship. According to Smith, when their physical relationship ended (because Mapplethorpe had come out), there was no major blowup or dramatic distancing. They adjusted to the change in status and remained lifelong friends until Mapplethorpe died of complications from AIDS in 1989.

"Just Kids" gave me a good feeling about Patti Smith the person; the casual interview below (courtesy of dangerous from 2009 built on and filled out this instinct. I don't always concern myself with who great artists are or were on a personal level—I'm still in awe of Jimmy Page, though he voted for Margaret Thatcher—but strength of character helps (Hendrix's sweet, humble nature elevated his accomplishments in my mind). Where many great artists are disconnected because they're too deep in their imagination or in a state of arrested development due to the perks that come with their exulted status, Patti Smith comes off as a mensch—a thoughtful, unpretentious person who happens to be famous. Bill Kelly elicits her motivations for coming to New York as a young woman and her life once she got there, in addition to her transformations from drawing to writing to performance recitation to fronting a rock band.

All of the above, plus Smith's closeness to her family, her political conscience (e.g. her outspoken views on the shocking criminality of the Bush Administration at 10:45 of Part II), and her raw and incandescent stage presence shine in "Dream of Life," a full-length documentary from 2008. 

Rather than use the film as a marketing vehicle, with a formulaic linear narrative, "Dream of Life" director Steven Sebring provides a quick synopsis of Patti Smith's life in the beginning, and then follows her around with a camera, free-form like. 

Smith is a personable companion whose values and sensibility are out in the open. The little girl inside the 60-something woman comes out through her curiosity, her free-spiritedness, her interface with the world around her. She lived in the unsexy city of Detroit for 16 years and spends much of the movie in a modest room cluttered with knickknacks and keepsakes, rather than vacuum-sealed in a mansion. As her story unfolds organically, more artistic (and life) influences are name-checked, including the Beats, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Mickey Spillane, Sylvia Plath, Charles Baudelaire, and Hank Williams, Sr.

Above all, Smith has deep bonds with her parents and her children, holds the memory of the departed close to her heart, and always seems aware of who she is and where she came fromshe is a heady artist who remains, refreshingly, forever earthbound.

1 comment:

  1. Like you, I read Just Kids and saw the Dream of Life documentary, and they made me love this woman...if we can love someone we never met except in her art, and through a lens. Her incandescent honesty, kindness and talent shine through. Your tribute shows all the same qualities. Thank you, Dan.