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.”