Irons in the fire

Poet, pho­tog­ra­pher, singer and song­writer Patti Smith doc­u­ments a re­mark­able life, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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