Irons in the fire
Poet, photographer, singer and songwriter Patti Smith documents a remarkable life, writes Iain Shedden
IT’S hard to imagine what kind of New York private investigator would emerge from the mind of Patti Smith, an artist one doesn’t associate automatically with homicide squads, serial killers and femmes fatales. But when the 61- year- old singer, songwriter and poet declares that one of the few ambitions she has left is to write a detective novel, you have to take her at her word.
‘‘ I don’t believe I’ve achieved what I want as a writer,’’ she says. ‘‘ I’ve written a lot that isn’t published, but I would like to write one book that people loved; at least one. I know it sounds a little presumptuous, but I love books so much and I would like to contribute something, even a children’s book: just something that people will read and re- read.’’
Time will tell if she can make that happen, but Smith’s tone of mild regret seems a little misplaced for someone who has achieved so much in so many different spheres of creativity during the past 40 years. Punk’s high priestess, poetic agent provocateur, rock ’ n’ roll hall of famer: these and many other appellations have come her way since she left Chicago for the bohemian enclaves of New York City in 1967.
Since 1975, when her first album, Horses , was released, Smith has consistently produced music that is confrontational and idiosyncratic. Her songs and her attitude have influenced a broad range of artists, from REM to PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth to KT Tunstall.
She can be a violent performer, yet there is beauty in her songs and in her other work, such as photography, or in her collaborations with composer Philip Glass, or in her readings of the American writers who influenced her and with whom she became friends: people such as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.
There’s also painting, writing and the collecting of artefacts, things that act as pointers to salient moments in her life. It’s no accident, for example, that among her many treasured photographs are images of her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers and Virginia Woolf’s bed.
Somewhere in between and in tandem with all of her artistic activity, Smith raised two children, both of whom are now adults and accomplished musicians. Her son Jackson will be part of her band when she returns to Australia next month for shows in Melbourne and Sydney.
To describe her Melbourne visit as a show would be like calling the Olympic Games a sports day. What Melburnians can expect is the Patti Smith multimedia experience.
In the space of a week Smith will perform with her band, with Glass in a tribute to Ginsberg, host an exhibition of her photographs from the past 40 years and appear with fashion photographer Stephen Sebring at the Australian premiere of his film about her, Dream of Life .
The documentary, which has just opened to glowing reviews in the US, took 10 years to make. There’s also an exhibition of artefacts relevant to the film in the installation work Objects of Life, which opens at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne next Friday.
Not satisfied to rest on these laurels, the veteran artist plans to complete a photo essay of the city during her stay. All of this confirms that in her seventh decade, Smith remains committed to every aspect of her craft.
‘‘ I always did all of these things, but at this time in my life I’m doing them publicly,’’ she says. ‘‘ I’ve been taking photographs for years and working on my drawings, but a lot of things have flowered to the point that they’re ready to share with people.’’
It’s 10 years since Smith appeared in Australia, opening for Bob Dylan on his national tour. It was a significant period in her life, too: a return to touring after a long lay- off. She was accompanied on the trip by her nine- year- old daughter Jesse and by Sebring, to whom she had just given permission to begin shooting his decade- long documentary.
Smith had largely retired from music after her marriage to guitarist Fred ‘‘ Sonic’’ Smith in 1980, when the couple set up home in Detroit to raise a family. Smith released only one album, Dream of Life ( 1988), during this period as she concentrated on raising her children. Tragedy struck, however, with her husband’s death in 1994, followed shortly after by that of her brother Todd and her former keyboard player Richard Sohl.
‘‘ It was a very difficult time for me,’’ she says, ‘‘ but I was obliged to work. In fact when I came to Australia, it was part of that process. It was really Bob Dylan who encouraged me to go back on the road and perform again because I really hadn’t decided to do that. I knew I had to make a living but I wasn’t quite ready to go back on the road.
‘‘ When Bob asked me, I decided to do it because both my husband and I had such a high regard for him. A tour under the shoulder of Bob would be a good way to re- acquaint myself with the people.’’
Since that tour Smith has never stopped working. Albums Gung Ho ( 2000), Trampin’ ( 2004) and her covers album 12 ( 2007) were all well received and were bolstered by a 30thanniversary reissue of Horses and Land , a twoCD retrospective of her best work. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock ’ n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
She has exhibited her photographs and paintings in New York and Paris, and in 2005 and 2006 performed The Coral Sea in England with Kevin Shields, guitarist and driving force of artpunk outfit My Bloody Valentine. The spokenword performances drew on her poem The Coral Sea , a tribute to photographer Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989. A CD of these concerts has recently been released in Australia.
Mapplethorpe has taken up a lot of Smith’s time lately. For the past five years she has been working on a book about their relationship, a task she says has been ‘‘ very difficult’’.
‘‘ It will be a nice book I think, because it’s about our younger days, when we met when we were about 20.’’
That meeting had a significant influence on Smith’s life and work. WHEN Smith quit teachers training college in Chicago and befriended Mapplethorpe soon after arriving in New York, the pair quickly launched themselves in the city’s artistic underground,
eventually sharing a room at the Chelsea Hotel and hanging out at performance spaces and music venues such as CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.
While Mapplethorpe explored photography, Smith wrote and performed her poetry, and was drawn to the burgeoning punk music scene. She brought those forms of expression together perfectly on Horses , an angular, angry debut that was suitably at odds with the bland, overproduced rock prevalent in the US at the time. Mapplethorpe took the cover photograph.
Aided by the growth of the punk and new wave rock scene in New York — which she helped create — and in Britain, Smith’s music career blossomed for the rest of the 1970s through albums such as Radio Ethiopia ( 1976) and Easter ( 1978), the latter of which contained one of her few hit singles, Because the Night , written with Bruce Springsteen.
During this period she befriended Burroughs, Ginsberg and other writers with whom she identified. Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake had been early influences on Smith, but Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl, among others, had also found a place in her heart.
‘‘ I met him when I was quite young,’’ she recalls. ‘‘ I was very close to William Burroughs and, of course, all of these people were friends: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso. Ginsberg had written some of our great poems like Howl and I’d studied him in school. All of these men were very kind to me. They all saw something in me. I was pretty raw but they encouraged me. I read with them and learned something from each of them.
‘‘ William was most gentlemanly and the one I gravitated towards, but Gregory taught me a lot about performance poetry. Allen was like six people in one. He was a strong social activist. He was opposed to war. He would go to jail. He was a good example to us all in terms of using his voice. He was quite a performer. He was always in the midst of studies. He loved life and knowledge and the blues.’’
From that description Smith could well be talking about herself, I suggest. ‘‘ That’s quite a compliment,’’ she says. The work Smith and Ginsberg did together in subsequent years leads to the performance Smith will give with Glass in Melbourne.
‘‘ Allen and I got along very well,’’ she says. ‘‘ We did a lot of work for the Buddhist community after my husband died.’’
The Melbourne show, Dedication to Ginsberg, is not the first of its kind. Glass and Smith first performed together at a memorial service for their mutual friend when he died in 1997. ‘‘ We enjoyed working together so much that we continued to do it, paying homage to Allen.’’
The pair perform each year at a benefit for Tibetan cultural studies at Carnegie Hall in New York. As in Melbourne, Smith reads some of Ginsberg’s work as well as pieces of her own that were influenced by him.
‘‘ Allen’s poems are very difficult,’’ she says. ‘‘ I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to do it. The language is so complex and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find a voice for his work, but I did find it and now I love reading his work.’’
If Smith risks being stretched by the numerous strands of her late career, she still finds time for social and political activism. In her work and on her feet she has been outspoken about the state of her homeland and its politics, critical in particular of the US involvement in Iraq and George W. Bush’s administration. She has also shown support for the independence of Tibet and for the Green Party in the US.
In 2006 in London, Smith performed two new songs on topics about which she felt outraged. One was Qana , an indictment of American and Israeli foreign policy; the other, Without Chains , railed against the detainment of a Turkish national at Guantanamo Bay. Smith says that while she hopes those songs make a difference, the idea of protest songs is less potent in today’s society than it was when her career began.
‘‘ It was much more effective in the past because there were few options for people to get information,’’ she says.
‘‘ We didn’t have music TV, we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones. The way we got information in my generation was through newspapers or radio and music.
‘‘ When Neil Young released Ohio ( actually Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but it was Young who had penned the condemnation of the killing of four students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970), all of America listened. Now you could release a song that is similarly strong and it might get a little bit of airplay, but there are such diverse ways that people are entertained and how they get information.’’
She adds that the US today ‘‘ doesn’t have a whole lot to be optimistic about. The war in Iraq is a terrible thing. It has cost us billions of dollars. Our economy is in trouble. The morale of the people is down.
‘‘ I would hope that having a fresh approach or a new administration that is more open- minded and more aware could give all of the world hope, but there’s no guarantee ( Barack) Obama is going to win. America is a very divided country.’’
If her country’s future is unclear, there’s some certainty about Smith’s place in it and in its cultural history. Aside from working on her Mapplethorpe book, the singer is also working on her next album, to be released next year. It’s another collaborative project that will feature Shields and also Australian- born Flea, bassist with Red Hot Chili Peppers, with whom she has written three songs for the album.
And if she’s concerned about the race to the White House, there’s still room for optimism in her private life.
‘‘ I do feel happy,’’ she says. ‘‘ I’ve learned that I can miss my husband and I can feel sad and I can miss my parents and think all the things I have to privately think about. My children are grown and healthy and they are both good people and good musicians. And I’m in good health.
‘‘ I’m optimistic — because I’m alive.’’ Patti Smith and her band perform at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on October 11 and 12 and at Sydney Opera House on October 15. For details of Smith’s performances and exhibitions at the Melbourne Festival, go to www. melbournefestival. com. au.
Performance in motion:
Patti Smith plays the Byblos International Festival in Lebanon earlier this year, opposite page; detail from Chico De Luigi’s portrait of Smith, above; a scene from Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life , left