September 18, 2009

"When all my friends were alive"

1. In Melbourne last October it was Patti Smith week. Or maybe Patti Smith month. She was the big event at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the keynote guest. She was everywhere, both rumoured and real. She was in the newspaper, making a sunglassed appearance like a cryptic Dylan, in a suburban bookshop. The Age headline: "Even without her guitar, she can still electrify." There were three photos with the story; she signed the armpit of someone's copy of Easter. She was appearing with Philip Glass in a tribute show to Allen Ginsberg and she was playing with her own band. A 16mm documentary about her screened, Dream of Life. Her photos were on show in a gallery; photos of her objects -- her boots, her guitar -- by someone else were on show somewhere else. Everything was about Patti Smith. I walked into a bookshop on Brunswick St and they were playing her covers album Twelve.
It was nearly a year ago but doesn't feel like that long. The hot, dry city. The festival crowds. My notes coming out of that art gallery: "Small, silvery pictures. Her bohemia claimed as Melburnian. Not rock 'n' roll lifestyle shots. Ruins, statues, goats." The place was packed with the curious. Pictures of Shelley's grave, and so on. The river Virginia Woolf drowned in (the picture above, The River Ouse). Old world, Burroughsian deserts and graves, sacred or charged objects. Relics. They played the Coral Sea album upstairs, from her book inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe with guitar-shredding supplied by Kevin Shields. A letter to the long-dead Mapplethorpe -- was this in a photo, was it separate text, a line on the album? Not sure now -- "I imagine you sleeping as I write. As you did when we were young."
The other story in the news all week was about a murdered Australian girl in Croatia. Cut into pieces and dumped in a lake. She was Britt Lapthorne, 21. Her mother on television: "We're just broken people."
On Saturday night, the concert. Five of us from New Zealand getting in for free. Great seats, no support act. My notes again: "Smith: We shall live again. George Harrison, Kurt Cobain, Hendrix. Refers to Tom Verlaine, Jerry Garcia. Living connection to bohemia. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso. Older, adulatory crowd. A twenty-something waitress in the restaurant beforehand says Who is Patti Smith? Ask your dad. Patti Smith started beatific, turned easily fierce."
Can't remember now what the Jerry Garcia thing was, but Tom Verlaine -- she said she'd just been talking to him on the phone. We weren't sure whether to believe her.
The film screenings had sold out. We wouldn't be here long enough to see the show with Philip Glass. But we saw the concert, the centre of all this revolving Patti Smith activity. She turned up after a film screening, the Age said, at a Q and A session and played some songs then too. She seemed to be everywhere, unable to stop appearing in public.

2. Back home, in the travel section of the paper, I wrote it up like this:
"The singer from the '70s?" says a cab driver back in Christchurch. But at least he'd heard of her. The 20-something waitress at Cookie, a sensationally good Thai-inspired restaurant on Melbourne's Swanston Street, draws a blank. "Ask your dad," one of us ungallantly replies.
Anyway, Smith is more than just some singer from the '70s. She was the first person to successfully fuse poetry and rock music. These days, she's also an art photographer -- her small, silvery black-and-white photos of subjects as varied as the river that Virginia Woolf drowned in and slippers that once belonged to Robert Mapplethorpe were in a busy gallery on Flinders Lane. And she was the subject of Dream of Life, a documentary that ran at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image on Federation Square.
In Melbourne, she plays two nights with her band. We catch one and see that, even at 61, she can shift easily from beatific Buddhist poet to someone furiously punk-inspired. Then she does a night with American composer Philip Glass in a tribute to Allen Ginsberg, which is a reminder of why you want Smith at your festival: she's a bridge between an older literary world and broader popular culture. She can cover a song by Kurt Cobain and then explain why Rimbaud or Genet mattered. Which means that she's a perfect symbol for a city like Melbourne, which so clearly values its bohemian flavour and lively artistic community.
She's everywhere in Melbourne this particular week. You go out to Readings Books in Carlton and she's there with sunglasses and smirk, trading quips with a crowd. You go out to the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Fitzroy and there are large colour pictures of objects from Smith's past taken by the guy who made Dream of Life; photos of the urn that holds Mapplethorpe's ashes, of her boots, her guitar.
They look like nothing so much as the relics of a saint.
3. Nearly a year later, I finally watch this movie, Dream of Life. It's experimental, patient, disorganised. It took Steven Sebring 11 years to make it; he was filming as far back as the tour she did with Dylan in New Zealand and Australia, 1998. He doesn't call it a documentary but a visual portrait. So no rock critic talking heads saying why this album matters or that album, but we still get Bono (briefly) who seems unable to stop himself appearing in other people's documentaries.
Smith gets her biography out of the way first. Births and deaths, especially the deaths. Robert Mapplethorpe, Fred "Sonic" Smith, her brother Todd. We keep getting this: the survivor, the one who gets to remember, the official mourner. And a walking curator of bohemian history, sometimes not much more than the sum of who she reads and listens to, or maybe that's all she chooses to show you (meaning she learnt more from Dylan than how not to hail a taxicab). You start to think she is never going to give you anything without the mythology and then she takes you/Sebring to her parents' house and they have burgers. She's like a kid again; she's stayed a fan her whole life -- is that who she is? In the DVD extras her mother says her favourite Patti Smith song is "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger".
Ginsberg said to her, after her husband died: "Let go of the spirit of the departed/and continue your life's celebration." There's a lot of death in this and a lot of overcoming. Not always celebration. She cries on stage reading Ginsberg's Buddhist poem "On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara" with Philip Glass, and the lessons taught to Ginsberg become lessons taught to Smith. You can get a sense that it's taken you a while to get to these unguarded moments, or taken Sebring a while. Even taken her a while. Periods of life, periods of extinction: the 1970s were "a time when all my friends were alive." Great line. Call her tough, vulnerable, enduring; the constant grave visitor, the book-carrier, the student.

4. This is Tony Triglio on that Ginsberg poem, from his book Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics: "Where the goal of a traditional western elegy is consolation through language that reaffirms metaphysical authority, consolation in this Buddhist elegy might be best expressed as a representation of the mind in an intensified condition of awareness, proof in the poem that the guru's lessons on meditation and perception have been put into practice after his/her death."