Pictures of Patti

(Originally published on MOLI 6/12/8)

There’s perhaps no more famous and fruitful collaboration between a rock musician and photographer than the long friendship between Patti Smith and the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Roommates in New York in the ’70s, a period fascinatingly chronicled in Mapplethorpe: A Biography, by Patricia Morrisroe, they both were transgressive pioneers: she as one of the poetess founders of punk, he as a portraitist of gay America. He shot the iconic black and white image of her for the cover of her debut Horses, an album that launched a million musical careers. If you ever get a chance to see Sandy Daley’s obscure 1971 film, Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, don’t miss it. Smith’s rambling narration — while, yes, Robert has his nipple pierced — in her thick New Jersey accent is off the wall and hilarious.

With her walleye, long tangled locks — no gray-hiding hair dye for this artiste — and Giacometti face, Smith has been a visual muse for many photographers since, including REM’s Michael Stipe. For the last decade or so, the singer has been working with fashion shutterbug Stephen Sebring. His documentary about her, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is scheduled for September release by Palm Pictures, it was announced yesterday. New Yorkers get a first peek at it at the Film Forum, August 6 to 19.

According to the press release, Dream of Life “is a plunge into the philosophy and artistry of this complicated, charismatic personality. Sebring captures Smith, who narrates the film, through her spoken words, performances, lyrics, paintings and photographs.” The movie also features Phillip Glass and Sam Shepard (another legendary ’70s collaborator of Smith’s).

Rizzoli will publish a companion book in August, which will include Polaroids taken by Smith. In addition, she and Sebring are releasing on their new PASK label The Coral Sea, a live CD she recorded with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields — along with photographers and playwrights, Smith has excellent taste in guitarists (Lenny Kaye, Tom Verlaine, her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, etc.).

There’s no artist who has been singularly more inspiring to me as a woman than Patti. That said, I find the sometimes reverential attitude of and towards her work since the early ’90s can get a tad annoying. Smith has always prided herself on her sense of humor, citing Johnny Carson as a major inspiration. I hope Dream of Life has some of the wackiness that makes Daley’s movie a classic. Whatever: The world could always use more Patti Smith, now maybe more than ever.


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