Monday, October 20, 2008

PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE—Q&A With Patti Smith and Steven Sebring

Wild crow she's a rabbit
She tells you she's a crow
She smiles her sea-shell smile on you
Like she was your very own
She ain't no Picasso
She ain't no Bill Monroe
She plays lead guitar with history
But she looks like rock & roll!

—Eric Anderson, "Wild Crow Blues" (For Patti Smith)

In 1975, I arrived in San Francisco with one suitcase in hand, $20 in my pocket and a heart full of dreams. I found a job as a busboy at Fanny's Cabaret in the Castro, rented a room from an acquaintance for $100 a month, and used one of my first paychecks to buy Patti Smith's Horses, which was all the rage at that time. At parties in the Haight people were smoking marijuana, hazing out on angel dust and LSD, and Patti's voice was the raw serenade ubiquitously pulsing through it all. She didn't quite catch me—I was more folk-pop than punk—and so I turned away from her subsequent recordings. Truthfully, it was her Rimbaud-esque stance that I was fond of and not so much her vocals.

Somehow in my mind over the years she morphed into a snarling sullen Queen of Punk Rock—a completely unfair characterization—and it wasn't until I listened to her heartfelt remembrances of Robert Mapplethorpe in James Crump's Black White + Gray (2007) that I reassessed my memories to place her creative contributions in articulate perspective. With Steven Sebring's crazy cowboy quilt Patti Smith—Dream of Life, I've had to thoroughly revamp my image of Patti Smith's persona. Especially as—waiting in line for last night's screening at San Francisco's Lumiere Theatre—Patti Smith with her iconic floppy felt hat walked up and down the line of fans waiting outside to catch her in-theatre appearance, greeting us all with a jetlagged smile and the sweet grace of all these years between then and now. Perhaps I had to wait until my heart was more full of memories than dreams to finally love the worn timber of her voice and the sheer poetry of her survival. In possibly one of the most generous Q&As I've ever attended, all I wanted to do afterwards was rush home and play 1975 all over again.

* * *

Once the applause subsided, Patti Smith thanked us for staying so late, though she qualified that it wasn't really that late. "It's late in Australia," she emphasized.

Patti Smith—Dream of Life has been compiled from 11 years of footage and a year's worth of editing. "It just organically happened that way," Sebring responded when asked why the project had taken so long. And as for how he developed a relationship with Patti so that she would be willing to be filmed over such an extended period of time, Sebring joked, "She immediately fell in love with me. She let me come around whenever I could. She invited me places. We became really close and we made a movie."

"Steven's like my brother," Patti added. "I mean, I do love him as my brother. As a true brother, he's completely trustworthy. It wasn't really like we were doing a documentary. He was just discovering. He was just shooting film. He didn't have any agenda. He had no design. And I liked that. I liked that he had no point of view. He didn't know very much about me and so he was discovering as he was shooting. He had the same philosophy as me: he doesn't like documentaries where you see a bunch of people talking about somebody like they're dead, saying how great they are or how obnoxious they are. It was just life, y'know? He was shooting what my people and my kids were doing trying to rebuild our life and rediscover who we were without their father, without my husband. [Patti Smith's husband and the father of her two children Jesse and Jackson—Fred "Sonic" Smith—died of a heart attack on November 4, 1994.] Steven was encouraging and it was nice to have him. He had just one camera, no lights, no crew, he was just there, y'know?"

"And it wasn't bad to become Patti's friend," Sebring confirmed.

Someone observed that there were quite a few chirping birds in the film and wondered if there was any subliminal intent in that? Sebring conceded a slight subliminality but the truth was that chirping birds were just everywhere. Patti added, "There were a lot of birds, for instance, at William Blake's gravesite. Birds everywhere. There were birds outside my window in New York. Doves and all kinds of birds."

"We enhanced it," Sebring admitted.

"The enhancement of birds," Patti grinned.

"It's part of that dreamy thing," Sebring summarized.

One young woman commented on the painting Patti Smith was working on throughout the film and asked if she could talk about it a bit? "It's part of a series I did, mainly silkscreen. When the Trade Towers came down, I live right near them so when I went down [to look at Ground Zero], the South Tower was remaining at the time. It was the only thing that remained and it looked a lot like Bruegel's Tower of Babel. I immediately took note of that. Also at the very top of it, it had two prongs that stuck out like a peace sign and I was fascinated with this image. I was thinking that—had Andy Warhol been alive—he might have done multiples of this or the Trade Center. He might have done something. So I decided I would do it, sort of as a continuation of something he might do. A lot of my drawings are created from language. I did a really big one. Steven made me a very light digital print of the image about four feet high and I wrote the Essene Gospel of Peace and made the structure all with handwriting so that when you looked at it from afar, you saw the structure, and when you got close to it you saw that it was the Gospel of Peace. I worked with that image in a lot of different ways."

Asked how she kept a positive sense of hopefulness in the face of modern horrors, Smith replied: "I like to be alive. When I was young in my early 20s, I lived in the Chelsea Hotel and I saw a lot of people that I admired, very famous people who would pass through the Hotel, and they seemed so sad. A lot of them were quite self-destructive and a lot of them died. I learned at a very young age that I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to die. I felt too happy to be alive to want to destroy myself. I always remembered these people that I so admired and thought were so great and I learned a lesson from them. There's something positive every day. There's always new people doing things. For instance, I like that the other day Colin Powell came out and endorsed Senator Obama. We all know that Colin Powell made some very unfortunate decisions and wasn't always true to his own instincts; but—despite that—he does have a certain amount of moral authority in our culture and he said that he felt that John McCain could handle the presidency; but, he felt that—more than that—we needed a generational change. We need new people. We need youth. We need new blood. We need people that understand our present culture. I'm 61 years old and I'm really happy to see someone of a new generation come in to see what they can do. George Bush and I are the exact same age so I've already seen what someone of my generation can do. Colin Powell's endorsement of Senator Obama makes me hopeful. Seeing what my children are doing makes me hopeful. I can go on MySpace and see what strangers are doing just to entertain or inform each other. I find that hopeful.

"Ralph Nader told me that pessimism was just a waste of time. I agree with that. It's great to be alive. Life is hard for various reasons. It might be hard because you have physical problems, illness, loss, you might be poor, hungry, I mean there's all kinds of reasons why life can be hard. Your boyfriend left you, perhaps. There's all kinds of things. But also every day there's such cool things. You go out and there's a full moon or the sky is clear and you see all these stars. You see a little kitten. Even stuff that people say is so corny; it might be corny but what's more beautiful than a little kitten?"

Asked about her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse, how old they are now, and if they appreciate the film now that it's done, Smith said her son is 26 years old. During the course of the filming he was 18 during the last footage of him. Her daughter is 21 and she, too, was 18 towards the end of the film. The reason there's not more footage of her children, Smith explained, was because Sebring was so respectful of them. When her daughter was eight, she asked not to be filmed anymore and so Sebring simply didn't film her anymore until she finally agreed ten years later to step in front of the camera. "He was never invasive to my kids," Smith said. "He didn't try to sneak in and take footage of them when they weren't looking. Jesse didn't want to be filmed and so Steven just didn't film her." As for what they think of the film, like anyone else they sometimes get embarrassed watching themselves on the screen but, all in all, they appreciate the film. They like seeing their grandparents, who passed away shortly after being filmed. They know that the film in a subtle way is an homage to their father Fred who was such a great man. Her brother Todd was also great; he died unexpectedly, shortly after her husband. The film is a nice tribute to all of them: her parents, her husband, her brother; their grandparents, their father; their uncle. The film is a nice way to think about them, to remember them. "My parents have become minor celebrities because of the film," Smith offered, "and they would have loved that." Likewise, her children loved Sebring. They had no problem with him. People compliment the film for being so natural and that's because Sebring produced a natural atmosphere.

Asked if Smith ever felt the need to add scenes she felt were necessary for the film, she answered that it was never like that. It was more like she wanted to visit her parents because she felt it would be nice to have them in the film and so she would ask Sebring, "I'm going to go visit my folks. Wanna come?" Or, "I'm going to William Blake's grave. Wanna come? I didn't have any vision about what would happen. We're going to protest the strike on Iraq. Wanna come?"

Asked how he shot the film, Sebring said he used a very heavy 16mm ARRI SR1 camera, which he has since retired. Smith imitated him trudging around with the camera "like John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress."

Knowing that Patti Smith was going to be in concert the following evening with her band, one gay man asked if she would play "Madrigal" for he and his husband who are reconfirming their vows? She congratulated them and wished them a long and happy life together but admitted that the reason she couldn't honor his request is because the song is too painful for her to sing. She wrote it in response to the death of her husband and would much rather have never had a reason for writing it, though she expressed appreciation that the fellow in the audience requested it. Few people mention the song.

One man asked her: "What's one thing I should do before I die?" Without missing a beat, Smith answered, "Get your teeth cleaned by a professional. There's nothing like it!"

A young woman admired that Smith had survived so long in the music industry on her own terms without compromising her artistic integrity, especially nowadays when you don't make it as a female musician if you're not "sexy". "In my day," Smith replied, "if you weren't male, you didn't make it. Sexy didn't help you very much. For myself, I just did my work. It depends what you want. If you're going for a career, that has a whole set of rules and an agenda and lifestyle that I can't tell you that much about. There's nothing wrong with wanting a career. There's nothing wrong with someone wanting to be a pop star if that's what you choose to be; but—in terms of myself—all I ever wanted to do was good work and the fact that I got as far as I did is kind of amazing and pretty much due to all of you. I did my work but I never thought anyone would care. I was willing to starve and get TB and die in obscurity just to do brilliant work. It really depends on what you want out of life. If you want to do good work, concentrate on the work. If you want to be famous or get rich, concentrate on the things you have to do to get rich and famous. Sometimes it depends on what your gift is. For myself, I would have loved to write a song like 'Beautiful' or 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine'. I would have loved to have written a song that—when people heard it—they'd go, 'Yeah!' Y'know? Universally. But I'm not Smokey Robinson. Everybody has their own special gift. I don't think that one is better than the other. I think people are better. You're either a good person or not. The most important thing is to be a good person, y'know? That's between you and your work."

One young mother asked if Patti had any advice in how to steer children towards their specific gifts and opportunities off the beaten track? "Actually," Patti responded, "I did the best to pick the best from my own mother and father. My mother was not perfect but neither was I and though she was far from perfect, she loved us. She was kind of strict. She had to work as a waitress and we had to fend for ourselves a lot; but, the main thing was that she really loved us. She noticed the things that were important to us. We didn't have much money but I loved to read and she would save up her tip money and—even when she was in her eighties and to her dying day—she would look through catalogs to try to find a book I liked. Right before she died, she gave me William Blake's complete works, a remaindered copy printed by Oxford University Press. My point is, she loved us. She made lots of mistakes, sure, but's that one thing that I never have to go through life thinking that I wasn't loved by my mom. I could say, yeah, she would yell a lot or be very reactive or whatever, but I can honestly say that my mother loved me and still loves me. I think if you love your children, everything will fall into place. We all make mistakes; but, if your kids can look back and think, 'Well, yeah, my mom was a drag sometimes, my mom didn't do this or she didn't do that, but, yeah, she loved me.' That's a good start."

One young woman said that Patti Smith's music helped her through her adolescence and that she was convinced that God spoke to her through the music. She wondered if Patti's God could talk to her? "Well, my God would be happy to talk to you," Smith quipped. "For me, I really believe that God is everywhere. As a child, my feeling about God was that it meant I wasn't alone. God meant that I had somebody to talk to, to tell my secrets to, to wish to or to dream to. As I got older, perhaps this transferred to other beings or sometimes I'd find God in others. At this time in life I pray more to my husband than I do to God but I feel like it's all the same. For me God is an energy. If I put it in really simplistic terms, I could say that—if God was a bank and we, with all our good deeds and all our love—we could replenish our God bank. We'd magnify God with our acts of charity, our acts of love, so we can create as big a God as we want. Or have that God shrink. I don't know. I don't really have a religion but I think that religion is not the point; the point is that we be good people. I believe that prayer is a beautiful thing and that God is who we imagine Him to be—or It, Her, it doesn't really matter—because I believe that our imagination also is like God." Patti apologized for being so jetlagged that she couldn't phrase a more articulate response and she sincerely wished she could express herself better, especially to such an attentive audience. "God is as we wish God to be. I guess that's the best I can say."

Following suit, one young man wondered—when she went to Jerusalem—if seeing the holy temples there strengthened her faith in any way? "That was all beautiful though what really strengthened my faith at the time was seeing—at that time in Jerusalem things were a bit more hopeful—and I thought it was magical when I would see at the place where we were eating people of the Islamic faith and the Christian faith and the Hebrew faith all commingling and I thought these are three of the great churches right in this tiny little city and they all have amazing history here—the history of Mohammed, the history of Abraham, the history of Jesus—and I just found it all beautiful because, for me, I believe that they worship the same God. I thought the possibility of everyone commingling is a beautiful thing. It wasn't so much the houses or The Wall or anything, it was at that moment the possibility of the people moving together, coexisting."

The next fellow—knowing that Patti had performed last year in Istanbul and then in Moscow—wondered what it felt like for her to perform in new places in contrast to returning to San Francisco where she has played many times before? He asked if she tuned into those differences? "We tune into everything, right?" she answered. "I can remember coming to San Francisco in 1973 or 1974 and we played in Rather Ripped Bookstore or Record Store and there were people there! I thought, 'How do these people know?' I couldn't believe that people actually came to see us! It was so great. But it's all magical. We just played in Lebanon. Istanbul sounds so romantic and interesting and, yeah, in a way it is; but, then you go to some little town outside of Oslo, Norway or somewhere in Finland and you have a mystical connection with the people or with nature that is totally unexpected. Or right now! This is no different now than being anywhere else. We're here. We're exchanging energies. I'm doing all the talking, I know. Sorry. Don't forget, it is a Steven Sebring film!"

I asked if Sebring could address how he shaped the film through the editing? How long it took him? How the themes emerged?

"I had an idea," he conceded. "And it just kept morphing into other things. It was really about taking scenes from other places and putting it against another scene and seeing how it worked, knowing that I was probably going to try to get Patti to talk over some of the scenes. It was a hard film to edit because you would try something cool that you thought was going to work and then it didn't work at all. I edited for a year and I was editing while I was filming. In fact, as I was editing, I was filming her in her bedroom because I needed to have a through line to go back to."

Smith remembered that the last thing Sebring shot was her preparing to leave to her art exhibition in Paris and that ended up being the final scene in the film. Sebring said that he needed an end to dream the life so the Shelley quote worked. He came to visit her as she was packing to leave and the camera was set up so the end became the end. It proved to be wildly successful in Paris because the audiences were aware that the film had segued into its premiere there.

Cross-published on Twitch.