Patti Smith: Legacy, death and how to survive it

    A slight, confused Patti Smith walked into the drawing room of the Block Museum of Art. Her 62 years were drawn on her face — hard from tragedy, and a hell of a lot of rock and roll. She wore a rumpled, black tweed sweater, slouchy skinny tie, striped shirt and her wild, frizzy hair looked identical (maybe a little paler) to the cover of her 1975 album Horses. Her eyes were slightly crossed so it was hard to tell where she directed her attention, but when she asked a booming, “So, what can we do for you?” her presence became undeniable.

    She held a ‘60s model Polaroid. She said it was nice to have a tool with which, after days of press and other insignificant things, she could look back and have “a sense of accomplishment in a day.” As newer, larger digital models flashed and snapped pictures of her, she took one of me, quickly examined it, and put it away. It was a bizarre moment.

    Patti Smith. Photo by the author.

    She acknowledged the camera was similar to the one once used by Robert Mapplethorpe. The photographer was her lover (yes, lover) early in their lives and the two remained close — even after Mapplethorpe realized he preferred men — until his death in 1989. He shot that legendary Horses cover and many of the other iconic images of Smith from the ‘70s.

    In the documentary Dream of Life, about which Smith came to campus on Friday to speak, there’s a quiet moment of Smith opening up the African-style urn that hold some of Mapplethorpe’s ashes. She spills a few into her palm and pokes at the remains, remarking at how they look like “like bits of shell” rather than dust.

    The film, screened before a sold-out crowd at Block Cinema, opens with the premise of death. Smith, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, rattles off the list of days and events that have made her famous but the opening sequence ends with a collection of deaths — Mapplethorpe, her husband, her brother, friends, other family members.

    Her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 shows up throughout the film despite the fact that he died shortly before the project began. His image and voice are present in the form of photographs and songs. In the film she remarks that the couple’s two children “have within them his musicianship and his proud, stoic manner.” Perhaps in those small tokens, those small moments, everything that needed to be carried on was conveyed. A memory, a spark.

    But there’s a sadness that taints her joy. Throughout the discussion she referred to Fred as “her husband” without a “former”, “deceased” or “ex” prefacing it. She admitted that she met Steven Sebring, director of Dream of Life, at one of the lowest points in her life — after the deaths of her brother, husband and other collaborators.

    Dream of Life, a 109-minute documentary shot mostly in black and white, chronicles 12 years of Patti Smith’s life. And though it gives no absolutes on her person or her legacy, it does suggest that life isn’t captured in moments that are that monumental to world history — you’ll see no footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall here — but in small and easily-missed moments that pack soul and punch.

    A short scene shows her looking out the window of a car as it crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, wistfully musing that a cloud “looks like a whale in the sky” before cutting to her sitting as a male companion plays the harmonica.

    Another scene follows Smith at the grave of poet and friend Allen Ginsberg. As she brushes dirt off his gravestone a small tabby cat crawls up her side and she delicately feeds it her sandwich. As she ambles around the graveyard, contemplating his death, she finally decides that he rests “at the feet of immortality.”


    Mortality is hard to ignore for a woman who has lost so many near her. During the post-screening discussion she mentions that she’s been working from 12 hours a day on a memoir chronicling her and Mapplethorpe’s early years. He’d asked her 20 years ago to write it shortly before he died.

    Her hands covered her eyes at the end of the song, and it was hard to tell if she did so in exhaustion or ecstasy.

    When asked who she’d have play her in a movie about her and Mapplethorpe’s 20s if it were ever made, she said Juliette Lewis, but with some hesitation. Lewis might be the best fit today but she’s met many girls that could have believably played Patti in her 20s — they’ve just become too old now.

    Smith is known for not liking to have her photo taken by strangers, so what made her allow a man with long hair, a ski cap and a fashion photography portfolio to follow her around for more than a decade, shooting her at her most vulnerable — shedding a tear at the wailing wall, reading of Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” while circling his grave, taking a stroll with her then 18-year-old daughter?

    “I needed to reclaim any ability I had to make a living and go out into the world,” Smith said about the period when filming first began.

    And perhaps that reclaiming involved cementing her legacy, on her terms. “Other people have written books, biographies of Robert [Mapplethorpe], and portrayed us filtered through their own imagination,” she said. “And even though certain books are well researched, the tone of our life and our relationship is so devoid of magic and love and youth that I felt it was important to also give this picture to people.”

    The fear that someone else could paint her image — without including every line, wrinkle or hair in its proper place — is there. “Sometimes people just say things that aren’t just not true, but cruel,” she said. “It’s just a little thing but there are hundreds of little things that people say, that just aren’t true. Some of it isn’t going to change history but it’s just not right.” It’s obvious that she wants control over her legacy.

    Sitting in front of me, Patti Smith as a silent, frail, aged woman looked all too mortal. But her image projected on a screen in front of a sweaty mass in Tokyo, lips snarling fiercer than any Sex Pistol with a dribble of saliva flowing from the corners of her mouth was so powerful, even Smith had to take a moment. Her hands covered her eyes at the end of the song, and it was hard to tell if she did so in exhaustion or ecstasy. And that power, that spark, that moment, it is immortal.


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