Patti Smith, documentary subject

Patti Smith with Steve Sebring; image courtesy of gerryco23.wordpress.com

Before I went on vacation, Kristen at Act Your Age told me that PBS was going to show Dream of Life, a 2008 documentary by Steven Sebring about Patti Smith. Then yesterday, as I was sorting out my house, my friends Jacob and Melissa reminded me that it was going to be on later that night. It should be noted that I received reminder messages from them within the span of five minutes. I’m fine with being the music geek friends send these sorts of notices to. Thanks, everyone.

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a Patti Smith fan. What I mean by that is, I don’t know Smith’s music very well. Several of my friends got to know her through her music, perhaps developing their feminist and/or queer identities as a result. I’m sure the same could be said for readers of this blog I don’t know personally. This isn’t to say I’m not open to listening to her work. I’m just not very familiar with it. If there is interest in subsequent posts wherein I listen to her albums in chronological order and document my thoughts about it like Carrie Brownstein did with Phish earlier this year, show me the way.

Next, a confession. I haven’t until recently been interested in listening to Patti Smith’s music. While I haven’t listened to Horses in its entirety, I am familiar with her, and the ways in which I’m familiar with her give me pause. Here is why.

1. Each time I see a documentary where she is discussed, the opening chords to “Gloria” fade in and a bunch of musicians wax pretentious about how her music melded the sacred with the profane, or that she was not a musician but a poet and I get pissy. Not because of the song, but because of the purple prose being recited over it. I actually hadn’t heard the song in full until I was well into college.

2. With some exception, these superlatives tend to come from men: Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore, Legs McNeil, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Michael Stipe are but a few names. I remember Alice Bag talks about her influence in the supplemental feature about women in punk in Don Letts’s Punk: Attitude and I know riot grrrl pioneers like Kathleen Hanna were inspired by her, but the praise mainly comes from the men. Established or well-regarded rock and roll dudes. Legends, if you will.

3. In some of the things I have read on Smith, she wasn’t very kind to the women and girls around her. Blondie’s Debbie Harry talks about how dismissive and unfriendly she was during their CBGB’s days in Please Kill Me, an oral history on New York punk collected by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It was also reported in Mark Spitz and the late Brendan Mullen’s L.A. punk oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb that Smith was nasty to The Runaways after they tried to visit her backstage after a concert, leaving a baby Joan Jett particularly crushed. Now, oral histories are tenuous at best and Smith is not asked to comment about any of this. Also, Bebe Buell speaks favorably of Smith in Please Kill Me. Kim Gordon has a prolonged friendship with her as well. But this, coupled with the fact that she doesn’t identify as a feminist makes me feel weird about her status as a feminist rock icon.

4. Add to this the very apparent sense of malecentric hero worship Smith evinces and I feel really weird about her. While I like that she likes Maria Callas, The Ronettes, and Christina Aguilera, I don’t get the sense that she had much use for women. She cut her hair to look like Keith Richards. She learned to hail a cab by watching Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, a man who would later tune her guitar. That same guitar was a gift from Sam Shepard. Tom Verlaine apparently has the most beautiful neck in rock music, though her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 possessed something altogether else. Pablo Picasso made inimitable art until Jackson Pollack created paintings out of the drippings from Picasso’s Guernica. Willem de Kooning’s paintings made her want to touch the art in museums, an “offense” she gleefully committed on more than one occasion.

In addition, Smith’s most well-known for covering songs by men, reclaiming Them’s “Gloria,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” and Nirvana’s “About A Girl.” Of course, she redefined those songs by singing them as a man without changing the male-female pronouns or amending them to be about Patty Hearst or Kurt Cobain. And, as I’m sure my friend Curran would be quick to point out, Smith often aligns herself with queer men like Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Michael Stipe. Curran may also posit that this makes Smith more closely as a transgendered person, which makes sense given Smith’s commitment to androgyny and sexual ambiguity.

However, I’ve always felt that Smith’s indebtedness to men has aligned herself at with a more liberal feminist, at times heterosexist view of how women play the game of rock (i.e., play the man’s game). While I get how others believe that she’s expanded how women can look and sound in rock, to me it still feels more like she’s abiding by male definitions of performance and sound rather than redefining it for female artists, a group she may not in fact feel that she is a part of. 

To be clear, I don’t need her to be feminine. I’d like it if she were a feminist, but I’d be happier if it just seemed like femaleness wasn’t so burdensome or powerless or safe to her. However, this is how it’s often seemed to me that Smith views or once viewed my sex category, and with it my gender, and this has always been our wedge. I’ll let her state her case.

Of course, this outlook may evince some potential transphobia on my part. I also might be privileging binaristic norms around gender and sexuality instead of championing fluidity. This nagging feeling keeps me coming back to Smith as an idea. But maybe I should get to know her better. And with that, the documentary.

I’ll be blunt again. For the most part, I found this documentary to be indulgent yet slight. Smith of course is the subject, but I was disheartened by how much she seemed to dictate the narrative (I find it just as frustrating when men do this, though I did like when Smith ordered filming to cease backstage before a performance). I would have liked more context.

I also would’ve liked to have been surprised by it more. I didn’t learn much about the artist or the person behind her mythology. I also didn’t get much of a sense of time and place. I could deduce the passing of time by watching her children mature. I understood when we were watching her tour the Trampin’ album because she was speaking out against the Iraq War and the Bush administration. I gather that dancing on the beach in Coney Island with Lenny Kaye was fun, but don’t know why it needed to be shown in slow motion. I know that losing her husband and her friend and long-time collaborator was traumatic because she said so. I don’t know how she felt about the loss of her parents during the 2000s. I saw that she loved playing with her guitarist son Jackson, who toured with her, but I know very little about her daughter Jesse past a gender-bending pubescent trip to the bathroom and, later, a carriage ride with her mother. And past some previously captured interview footage of Smith, I don’t know why she left mundane New Jersey to become a punk poet in New York, though I think I can imagine why.

That said, there were little snatches of Patti Smith the daughter and the artsy gender rebel that I enjoyed and did help me get to know her better. Seeing her eat hamburgers at her parents’ time-warp home. Seeming both proud and embarrassed when her father admits that he can’t go to his daughter’s concerts anymore because he lost his hearing at the earlier gigs he did attend while wearing one of her concert t-shirts. Trading chords with Shepard. Reminiscing about eating hot dogs in Coney Island with Maplethorpe. Holding up her children’s baby clothes and proudly declaring their cleanliness and her refusal to use bleach. Talking about how wanting to touch original paintings in museums is easily satisfied by making your own art. Playing woodwinds with Flea on the beach and swapping stories about how expertly both musicians can pee into bottles while traveling. And seeing her performances and hearing her words, her songs. I wish I was given a timeline to find out when all of these works were created, but I’m content to find out for myself. Let’s start by revisiting “Redondo Beach.”

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16 comments

  1. patti smith

    thank you very much for putting this piece together.
    i found it very interesting, well written and it made
    me consider many things. i realize that though
    communication is important to me, perhaps my left-handed
    ways leaves many feeling outside or as you
    have mentioned, dismissed.

    a new year has begun. i will think about what you
    have written and try to do better. but i like
    this piece. it has substance and is fair minded.

    happy new year and keep writing
    all good wishes

    patti smith

  2. O

    O.k. Your article will be better if you get your facts straight: Patti wrote a song called About a Boy for Kurt Cobain; she covered Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Hey Joe was covered by Jimi Hendrix and originally performed by the band The Leaves. With a little more research you will find that Patti Smith has many woman in her cannon of influences/heroes: Anita Pallenberg, Amelia Earhart, Jeanne D’Arc, Anne Demeulemeester, Marriane Anderson, Marriane Faithful, Isabelle Eberhart, Renee Falconetti, Anna Karina, Jean Seberg– to name but a few. Smith has strived to be “beyond gender” (as she says); male/female, two poles of a unity between which she has walked with ragged grace. She has encouraged us to honor those who have come before, while being ourselves, selves that transcend all categories.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Fair enough — as I said in my post, I’m not a fan so I didn’t know about “About A Boy” or “Hey Joe,” though I did know about “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I stressed from the beginning of the piece that I don’t come to Smith with much information past what I’d inumerated. I didn’t purport to have my facts straight, hence why I outlined my reasons for feeling weird about Smith in the past and wanted to start confronting her work.

      I do get Smith’s stance on gender, but it’s hard for me to look beyond gender. I think I made my struggle with it clear, and emphasized that it’s something I’m trying to work through as a feminist and thus why I keep turning to Smith.

      I also wasn’t aware of the women who influenced her as, again, in the limited catalog of documentaries and books I’ve read where she is not the subject, none of these names came up. If you’d like to share how you know these things, as well as what drew you to become a Patti Smith fan, I’m happy to learn.

    • not johnny

      All of Smith’s women are women with a strong image – almost nothing to do with substance, almost everything to do with surface.
      Jeanne D’Arc? historical figure or the girl who played her in the film (Jean Seberg!) ?
      Tragic, emotional, Woman in the face of cruel, but heroic, Man. That used to be Smith’s motif (though admittedly, I don’t know if it still is).

      For me, as a 16 year old in ’75, Smith’s strength was her aggressive stance – the ‘no shit’ attitude and the androgenous clothes. She was the figure that made me realise there really was a world outside home and school. And it was a world that was available to women who didn’t dress like ‘feminine’ women, too… remember, this was the mid-seventies! Thankfully I had friends who were also very politicised, otherwise I would have ended up with a very lop-sided, masculine, view of what constituted a strong female.

      Her weaknesses have always been her swallowing of the myth of the Heroic male and her seemingly utter dismissal of the female (except the female in relationship to male).
      There’s always seemed a bit of a personal self disgust going on with her female-ness too, maybe this is the root of her bolshiness? Her ‘ragged grace’ seems more like avoiding the cracks in the pavement rather than an un-mediated stroll through the landscape of gender.

      ‘Horses’ was a monumental album, in lots of ways, and her best gigs have been light years better than any others I’ve ever seen (even up to the early 2000′s), but, as a person, she doesn’t come across as someone particularly generous in spirit or empathetic in nature. Her own self-loathing permeates her attitude towards other women.

      I don’t dislike Smith at all, but, having been very aware of her for the past 30+ years, and having met her a few times, mutual acquaintances etc, I know she’s a bit of a pretentious nitwit, with less substance than her image implies… hmmm, exactly the kind of girl she always seemed to like.

      • Julie

        I met her last week at a signing after an in-store performance and she was a bitch from first instant. She really was bloody nasty to me (I was honored to meet her and acted like it) but her display only made herself look incredibly bad in front of Lenny and the others nearby. They all had a look on their faces saying, “Was that really necessary?”. But who cares right?… she’s Patti Smith. I guess since she’s cool, “Godmother of Punk” and has such a huge celeb fan base.. she can treat her fans however she likes. She has a steady flow of enablers worshipping her and telling her what she wants to hear.
        It really makes me feel shit because I’m from Detroit, have been a huge fan for years…have everything she has ever recorded, books, gone to her screenings, boasted about her work for many years and spent a lot of time doing artwork on her. She makes me sick now…can’t even hear her name without disgust. Obviously still raw about it bc I googled ‘Patti Smith Bitch to her fans’ and this site appeared. Good point that the only well known people who worship her have all been men. Perhaps I should invest my spare money, time and energy into Debbie Harry or a worthy female performer who doesn’t abuse her female fans…at least DH is real and kind to other female artists. Have to destroy some cd’s now & it’s a shame. Really sorry this happened and stunned that I wasted so much energy supporting this person. It’s a sick joke.

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  5. Merryn Smith

    Just came across this when searching about the same topic after talking with other women musicians and artists about Patti’s apparent reputation as being, to put it bluntly, a bitch to fellow women artists and musicians etc. In particular there has been much written about Patti’s dismissal of women who are positioned as ‘sexy’ (Debbie Harry, The Runaways etc). I also agree that Patti presents a problematic figure for women artists and many struggle to feel connected to her work and to her as a person. Oddly enough I think this is not so much due to her androgyny but her negation to engage with gender on both a personal and political level through her art – and I don’t mean her negation of traditional femininity either – but rather the way she seemed to iron out her experience of being gendered. Yes we can agree this presents an interesting prospect about ‘moving beyond’ or ‘outside of’ gender but it also means that for most women (and I am guessing for quite a few men as well) they simply cannot relate to her identity. Hence she often seems distant as an artist and, by example, reproachful or moralistic, in her ability to move beyond gender. For the majority of women across the globe even today, moving beyond gender means many really complicated, dangerous, difficult and painful things (not least being leaving behind the femininity that constituted the women that whent before them). And it may have meant these things to Patti as well. But we don’t know because she never lets it slip. And yes, she does seem to adore male artists and in this respect, many women may well suspect, masulinity – perhaps because these men are not interested in their gender per say. I think for me, Patti speaks to me as any male artist does and this is neither bad or good, rather it appeals in a distinct way at distinct times and for distinct reasons. But as a deep insipiration… I would have to say, as a person who feels gendered and who wants to embrace and reconstruct that social category, no Patti Smith does not offer me a substantial artistic voice that I can draw from again and again.

    • Chris

      I know that this article is now several years old, however, after having read the comments listed, i felt inclined to add my perspective. I am somewhat new to the world of patti Smith. I have been a fan since 2007, and have since seen and met her. i found it to be a very genuine and wonderful experience and the room was filled with love. Knowing her and her artwork has opened and enriched my life in so many ways and i feel better for having welcomed her into my life. I was somewhat put off by the comments I saw in this article , to say the least. I know that everyone’s experience is their own and I understand that, however, I feel some things must be addressed. When i read the comment from Julie, “she was a bitch from the start- and now i’m going to throw away some cds because she didn’t shower me with her undivided attention”, I found it a joke. Bearing in mind, Patti has always done her career and her persona on her own damn terms. People know this. She has never put on a persona or been contrived and that’s what makes her special and stand out today as she did then. You must take into consideration that perhaps she simply wasn’t well that day. She’s in her sixties and being jostled from place to place and it must ware a person down, then she has to go and put on a show (and I think even the most cynical fan can argue she puts all she has into her shows) then has to do press. So sorry julie if she didn’t pamper you with love and attention, but your argument seems flimsy to say the least. Also to then say “i’ll go to Debbie Harry instead (as though there is a competition) shows that your “fandom” was skindeep. so please go-and don’t come back.

      patti is constantly exploring new worlds, new ideas and new voices, so to say that she doesn’t offer something that you can come back to again and again seems pretty off the mark. have you read her poetry? heard her newest album, “Banga?” everything from explorers to the environment is covered. Her art spans some of the finest galleries in the world, and she is constantly offering new ideas. I know it’s your perception,but from my perception it seems faulted.

      So fans can think what they wish. i find patti’s work to be strong and a wonderful nourishing influence in my creative life. As for the main article, i found it very well done. as for the vitriolic comments, well, i’ve already spoken to those.

      Chris

      • Julie

        Oh Hi Chris, You were not there when Miss Smith embarrassed herself in front of everyone while she was going to great lengths to be a bitch to me not once, but 3 times. Maybe before you comment on what I say about my interaction, maybe you should’ve been there and witnessed for yourself. I’ll ask the Amoeba employee’s to chime in as they were shocked at her behavior as well!
        Julie

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  7. cyndi

    Maybe reading some of her books would give you some perspective about Smith. I remember hearing Springsteen’s “Because the Night” on the radio in the 70s that she covered and I thought it was great.
    Just finished reading “Just Kids”, her book about moving to NYC and meeting Robert Mapplethorpe.

    • Chris

      Julie, the only thing that’s “embarrassing” is your petulant about this woman. Frankly, you seem like a real piece of work, so i can imagine why she was supposedly “nasty” to you. As it turns out, iam friends with two woman who work at Ameoba and have orchestrated several patti events and said she has been nothing but generous to her fans. You were probably just being a pain in the ass and she wasn’t having it. Get over yourself, tootz.

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