By Stephen ApplebaumEver since people started calling her the “Godmother of Punk”, Patti Smith has been out to prove there’s more to her than that. A new film about her multifaceted life sets the record straight.
PATTI Smith’s groundbreaking 1975 debut album, Horses, helped ignite the US punk movement, leading the New York Times to dub the wiry performer “Godmother of Punk”. Smith herself, though, fought against attempts to define her. The album’s iconic cover, shot by her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, featured Smith dressed androgynously in men’s clothes, while the sleevenote stated that she is “beyond gender”. Today, at 61, her thin, aquiline face may be framed by lank grey hair, but the attitude of spiky self-determination remains the same.
“I don’t like to be called any label,” says Smith. “My band came out before punk rock. I like it very much, and I think it’s an important movement, but we have always been independent.” Journalists who call her a punk rocker “don’t have the imagination or the professional intelligence or the curiosity to see the full breadth of what I’ve done, and what my band has done”, she snipes.
Indeed, as a new documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life shows, there is much more to Smith. Shot mainly in haunting black and white, director Steven Sebring’s phantasmagorical “12-year slice of life” is by turns moving, funny, and surprising, not least in the way that it contrasts Smith’s onstage ferocity with her offstage gentleness and warmth. We see her as poet and painter, mother and daughter, sister and wife, dreamer, political activist and, of course, rock’n’roll animal.
“Yes, I am a great punk rock guitar player,” Smith laughs, “but in terms of music, the things that I aspire to are infinite.” Before the music, however, there was the word. Smith was encouraged to read by her mother, who gave her young daughter, among other things, a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Smith identified with the poet who, despite poverty and misunderstanding, pursued his work with joy. When she was 16, Smith stole a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations from a book store, beginning a lifelong obsession with the doomed poet.
“I fell in love with his face, and I thought he would make a very good boyfriend,” she chuckles. “I read the book, and I loved his poetry even more. I can only say that I have had a few really great men in my life, and I consider him one of them.”
By the early 1970s Smith, who grew up in rural South Jersey, had moved to the Big Apple and established herself as a poet and off-off-Broadway actress. In 1971, she performed three poems backed by Lenny Kaye on guitar, following which she set to forming her own band, and by 1979 had released four albums. Smith then shocked everyone by breaking up the band and moving to Detroit to raise a family with her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Smith didn’t disappear from the music scene altogether, though. In 1986 she recorded an album (released in 1988), Dream of Life, with her husband, for which Mapplethorpe again supplied the cover photograph. It was their last collaboration before Mapplethorpe’s untimely death from Aids three years later. Smith’s keyboard player, Richard Sohl, died shortly after, followed, in 1994, by her husband, aged just 45, and brother.
Allen Ginsberg urged the widowed artist to “let go of the departed and continue your life’s celebration”. Bob Dylan invited her to tour with him, and when she was looking for someone to take promotional photographs, REM frontman Michael Stipe introduced Smith to Sebring as someone he thought she would be able to trust, as she embarked on her first live performances in 16 years.
“I was trying to get my feet on the ground. I had no money, I had two small children, I had to start all over again, and Steven really supported me,” reflects Smith. “He became my new brother. To have the guy carting this big, heavy camera on his back, believing in me, was inspiring to me and helped me break through. A lot of people helped me. But, as I have always said, more importantly, the people helped me. People seemed glad to see me, were patient when I was nervous or a little rusty.”
The dead gently echo throughout Patti Smith: Dream of Life, but more as inspirations than losses. When Smith returned to New York, she was politically sharper thanks to her husband, and became one of the first artists to publicly oppose the invasion of Iraq. Her angry call for the indictment of George Bush for trampling over the American Constitution is one of the most powerful sections in the movie. Smith says some interviewers have suggested that they should edit out footage of her anti-war activities, because it is supposedly old hat.
“How can they say that?” she asks bemusedly. “Nobody listened. After Vietnam we let this happen in Iraq? Obviously people forget. So I think it’s very important to take a stand. Sometimes you take a stand when nobody else is taking a stand, because you have to keep the torch burning.”
And Smith herself, who has a new album out next month, The Coral Sea, is still burning as brightly as ever. The film is an inspirational, passionate, humanistic portrait of a beautiful soul that at times seems to take place in a space between the world of the living and of the dead. Smith is filmed visiting the graves of people she knew, or who have touched her through their work, but she insists that she is not morbidly preoccupied with death: “I find it comforting, I know their spirit is elsewhere but I like the proximity of something of them there. And for people I’ve never met, such as Arthur Rimbaud, I feel some sense of place that their remains are there and I’m there with them.
“When I go to visit Jim Morrison’s grave, I don’t feel the dead, I feel life. Young people go there, they make love, they smoke pot, they have a drink. Same with my husband’s grave. I go to visit his grave, which we did in the film, and often we’d leave him cigarettes, a shot of Cognac or something, and I don’t think about him dead, I think about him alive. I have good memories.”
Indeed, the clue is in the film’s title, inspired by a line from Shelley’s poem Adonas: “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep/He hath awakened from the dream of life.”
First published in The Scotsman