Over the Christmas holiday, I chanced on the Patti Smith documentary that I had heard about on Studio 360. We had just unloaded the U-Haul, moving to Philadelphia, and the WHYY feature somehow reaffirmed the move to an an urban capital. Patti Smith herself has roots in Philadelphia, a fact that she talked about at length when I saw her perform exactly 8 years ago, at the Keswick Theater, Dec. 27, 2001. That was a special concert for me. I went with my best friend Yorgos and we were both amazed by the number of older people (like us) in the audience who even brought their children. Smith’s own mother, who lives nearby, was in the audience and both Smith’s sister and son played with her onstage (see a review here).
Soon after Patti Smith lost her husband (Fred Smith of MC5) and her brother (Todd) in 1994, REM’s Michael Stipe caller her out of the blue to offer condolences; he also recommended a photographer. Steven Sebring entered Patti Smith’s life a that moment, documenting the experiences of an ordinary human being rather than the legendary “godmother of punk.” Sebring’s filming became the documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life that premiered on Dec. 30, 2009 on PBS’s Point of View. Dream of Life is hauntingly beautiful capturing the creases in the artist’s life. I also enjoyed Sebring’s focus on Smith’s children, especially Jackson Smith who is married to Meg Ryan (of the White Stripes). In many ways, Patti Smith’s story after her marriage to Fred Smith is a life centered around Detroit (Saint Clair Shores). Documentaries on rock musicians tend to follow generic lines. Dream of Life breaks away from the mold and becomes a creative enterprise in its own right.
Patti Smith has also just published an autobiographical work on her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1969 booth photo, top). Just Kids was released today (Ecco, 2010). Just as Dream of Life takes us to the period after Smith’s New York apotheosis, Just Kids takes us to the period before. For a review of the book, see Janet Maslin, “Bohemian Soul Mates in Obscurity,” New York Times (Jan. 18, 2010), pp. C1, C8. Maslin points out that Smith’s growing up with Mapplethorpe took place before many of the disturbing pictures that earned Mapplethorpe his late notoriety (and censorship by the NEA). I am looking forward to matching the Sebring documentary with Smith’s own reflections. After all, Smith is just as much a writer as a rocker. Returning to the home where I spent my own growing up, I’m especially susceptible to such stories. It was in this old/new home that I first admired Patti Smith.