Perfect Sound Forever

Patti Smith

Photo courtesy of Palm Pictures

Interview by Tony Sclafani
(April 2009)

Patti Smith hardly needs an introduction to any serious rock fan.

As rock writer and denizen of the New York poetry scene in the early 1970's, she fused her writing with music to create groundbreaking rock with the Patti Smith Group. The late 1970's saw her release a handful of classic albums (Horses and Easter being the most favored) and even having a hit single with "Because the Night," a song she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen.

And then Smith disappeared. She married former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and the pair settled down to raise a family. She returned with the Dream of Life album in 1988. To the surprise of legions, the album spawned a modern rock radio hit with "People Have the Power." But Smith then reverted back to domestic life with her husband, who died in late 1994.

After her husband's death, Patti Smith began to gradually re-enter the music scene. In fact, her 1996 album Gone Again was largely a tribute to him. At this time too, celebrity photographer Steven Sebring met Smith during a photo shoot and was intrigued. He knew little about her as a rock celebrity, but when he found out about her work as a musician, poet, and painter, and got to know her family, he decided to make a film about her.

That film, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, was released last year to mostly solid reviews. The negative notices came from critics who seemed baffled by Sebring's decidedly non-standard approach. The first-time director explained to this writer in late 2008 that he purposely eschewed rock film conventions and instead concentrated on Smith as an artist and a "whole person."

"A lot of people are expecting more of a rockumentary type thing because they don't know her other sides," Sebring said. "(But) I had so much stuff other than her performing. I wanted the film to be all of what she does."

Patti Smith: Dream of Life was released on DVD earlier this year. Smith took some time recently to share her feelings about it and what it was like to allow elements of her very private life to be preserved on film.

PSF: When you got to see the final cut of the movie, what was your impression?

SMITH: I think that the first thing that struck me and that made me really happy that I hadn't anticipated -- is just the way it was structured, subconsciously even if it wasn't by design. I felt Fred's presence through the film. I mean, obviously, we started the film after Fred died, and I tried to be discreet about Fred because he was a very private man. Yet he permeates the film. He permeates it through the things he taught me, through his children, and through the inner reserve that all of us had -- the strength we all had, my children and I. He was there with us. I really felt Fred's presence. I mean, "Dream of Life" was Fred's title, when we did that album together. The first thing you hear in the movie is Fred playing guitar. When someone says, "Whoops, I goofed up, sorry," that's Fred.

PSF: What feelings did the movie conjure?

SMITH: The movie made me cry, but I was also happy. I felt seeing my mother and father -- who had died before the film was completed was just wonderful for people to see in this very brief time period. You could understand my mother and father. It's amazing. I think my mother and father knew what their task was -- they were both at the end of their lives, and they brought to the film exactly who they were.

The other thing that came to my mind is that this is Steven's film. It's Steven's portrait of me. Steven didn't know anything about me when we met. He hadn't listened to my music. He didn't know anything about my history. So in that way I find it a very human portrait. It's very present tense, which is the only reason I agreed to do it. I wanted it to be a very present tense experience. It's not shackled by too much history or a lot of talking heads. It's life, you know -- I'm not dead! And I like the fact that even though there's obvious time passing my children grow within the film, I lose my parents within the film it's still all shot in present tense.

PSF: I've read that you preferred the non-documentary format.

SMITH: Well, someone could very easily get a lot of documentary footage, I suppose, and try to piece things together. But in a way I lived so privately from '79 to '95, and there isn't any material in that period because I lived a very private life. People would have to speculate [about] 16 years of my life. So I like that he chose to work in present tense and sort of discovered things about me as we went along.

PSF: Can you talk about what sparked the idea for a film?

SMITH: Steven and I met -- I was uncomfortable having to be photographed after my husband died. I did an album called Gone Again in memory of him and I had to be, of course, photographed and interviewed for the album. And I was so unaccustomed to that in the last 16 years. What made it more difficult was the death of Robert Mapplethorpe [a close friend of Smith's who photographed the cover of her first album, "Horses"]. It was heartbreaking for me to be photographed. You know, the idea of being photographed again after Robert's death was painful. And I also had children. I had met Michael Stipe and he was such a kind, discreet person and also a family person. I asked him [what photographer] would fit that description because I had to do some photographs. I wanted someone who would be good with my children -- who wouldn't come in with some kind of rock and roll attitude and would just be a human being. He suggested Steven -- and Steven was all of that. He's a natural person. He's unaffected and at that time was extremely innocent -- like an innocent cowboy who was also a gifted photographer. My children loved him right away.

So when he asked me to -- I'm sorry this is taking so long! -- when he asked to film me, I had already trusted him. I already had a trust in him. It's like having a brother. And again, I had just lost my brother. So it was nice to meet someone who had that type of humanity. He wasn't trying to do a "rock and roll film." He came and met me first as a mother that's what he knew me as a mother. Then he saw that I drew and painted and he saw me as an artist, and then he slowly discovered that I also sang. He wasn't aware of what I did musically. So his presence was not invasive. He didn't have any agenda. He did everything with his own money. He also told me if I never wanted to do anything with the film, I could have it for home movies since my children were in it. He said, "I'll hand all the film over to you." And he was mostly by himself. I mean, occasionally he had a friend help him, or his wife or a band member would help him with the sound. But he carried that camera around himself.

PSF: After years of living in privacy, did you find the process at all invasive?

SMITH: If my children or I didn't want to be filmed he turned the camera off. He just became like a family member. So it wasn't invasive. And also, I don't really have anything to hide, except I didn't want my children's privacy invaded. But I don't have a double life. I'm just the way that I am. He wasn't gonna find, you know, anything. There's no controversy swirling around me. You know, I'm really work-oriented. And even when I was younger, and probably had a little more style and a little more brashness, I still had nothing to hide. I really have always been really work-oriented. That's what I like best. On the road that's what I like best: I like to work. So I'm not really lifestyle-oriented. I think that there isn't anything missing in the film. He pretty much got what my life is about.

PSF: Since the film essentially took ten years from start to finish, did you ever wonder if the project had died on the vine, so to speak?

SMITH: I actually never really thought a film would happen. He was shooting it so piecemeal and sometimes a year or two would go by and he didn't shoot anything. I didn't think about the film. It was Steven's project and whether or not he ever did anything with it was up to him. I don't really have an agenda when I do my work except to communicate certain things. I think what happened with the film is that it became Steven's agenda. I think Steven -- when he saw that I did all of these things -- was very surprised. He would talk to people and they didn't know I wrote poetry and they didn't know I drew or painted, or that I had been drawing or painting since 1967. Steven learned about me backwards. He knew my drawings and painting and my writing and me as a mother, and found out that I had a past musically and was a performer after the fact. So I think that it was really Steven's motivation: for people to see me as he saw me. And that I have more facets than some people are aware of.

PSF: Actually, it surprised me to learn you were a visual artist -- and I've known about you for decades.

SMITH: That's how I began. I stared doing drawing and painting seriously in 1967, and I didn't record Horses until 1975. So there's a long period of time there. My central motivation when I was young was to be an artist and a writer. I wasn't motivated towards having a rock and roll band ever. It happened organically in my pursuit to develop my poetry. But it was never a goal of mine when I was younger.

PSF: How has the reaction to the film been so far?

SMITH: Sometimes people criticize it because there's not more music and it's very, very expensive to license music -- even my own music. I never understood that. We couldn't just use my music. You have to pay for it. You have to license it with the record company. It was a very expensive project. I think it's very fortunate that Steven wasn't trying to make a rock and roll movie. First of all, I wouldn't have been interested in that. But he would have never been able to put it out. So I think that he did a very honest job and what more can you ask?

PSF: Is there anything else you'd like to share about Patti Smith: Dream of Life?

SMITH: I think the main thing I'd like people to really know is that this is Steven's movie. It's not my movie. This is really a Steven Sebring movie. He had a vision for it as he shot it. It's Steven's portrait of me using whatever resources he could use.

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