ARCHIVE: Smith, Sebring Ask the Angels

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Punkpoetpriestess  and all-around SuperMom Patti Smith appears this Sunday at Asbury’s Paramount Theatre, in a talkback with the audience following a screening of the Smith-themed documentary DREAM OF LIFE. 

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 27, 2009)

If you go way back with Patti Smith — and no matter where and when you picked up on her career, you’re gonna wanna trace it back to its point of origin — you can’t help but look at that public life as having two distinct acts.

There’s the tough but daydreamy daughter of Pitman, NJ who pretty much singlehandedly jumpstarted the whole D.I.Y. punk-rock ethic with the 1974 appearance of her self-ished 45, “Hey Joe”/”Piss Factory.” The poet-priestess ofCBGB who existed almost on a plane apart, even as she gave an early face and voice to the currents that roiled beneath the major-label stranglehold of the 1970s music biz. The unclassifiable artist who seemed to spring full-grown into being with her album Horses, even after having written for major rock mags and collaborated on plays with her old boyfriend, Sam Shepard. The almost-feral talent who punched a hole into the mainstream with SNL and the Springsteen team-up “Because the Night” — then called it a decade just at the point when her place in the popculture seemed most assured, in favor of marriage (to ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith) and motherhood.

Flashback to August 1978, and the Patti Smith Group’s summer concert atConvention Hall in Asbury.

In Act Two it’s the middle of the 1990s and Patti Smith is back again with Gone Again, not a celebratory comeback but an elegiac hymn to the memory of her husband, her brother, her friend Bob Mapplethorpe — all her “favorite guys,” taken away within such a short time. This time she’s the mature, graying earthmom folkieMa Joad with electric guitar; neither a “victim” nor a media-hungry “survivor” — just a person who found a need and a means to make music once more. Which she’s done for a handful of more recent releases; arguably the only genuine American musical icon who could get away with an 11-minute ode to Ho Chi Minh.

Flashback to two or three breathtaking nights at the Stone Pony in Asbury, on or around the new millennium.

If you had gone out for a smoke or a snort during that decade-plus intermission between acts, you’d have missed the 1988 album Dream of Life, an anomalous stand-alone work that yielded a modest radio add (“People Have the Power”) and provided the only real public record of the Smith-Smith union as musical marriage and working partnership. To this day it’s an island unto itself, an effort that doesn’t fit squarely into any other phase of her career.

Flash forward to Sunday, March 29, 2009. Dream of Life is now the name of both a book and a documentary film — some dozen years in the making —  on the life lessons, loves and letters of Patti Smith. It’s a portrait of the artist as wife, activist, mother, feminist, worshipper, daughter, rockstar, rebel, jam-buddy and, well, artist. And, having scored big on the festival circuit, the film (distributed as of late last year by Palm Pictures) comes to Asbury’s Paramount Theatre for a special screening event, presented by the Asbury Park Film Initiative.

Smith herself plans to be present for a Q&A session that follows the 3pm showing — as will the film’s director, Steven Sebring. The top-echelon fashion photographer and camera visionary spent a big chunk of his own life following Smith on tour, in concert, visiting her parents, doing laundry. Sebring graciously fielded a few questions from Red Bank oRBit prior to the event.

RED BANK ORBIT: I’m intrigued by the choice of DREAM OF LIFE as the title for your project…I’m wondering how you view this sort-of overlooked LP and its significance in Patti’s public life? What might be the reasons for your taking the name of the film from it?

STEVEN SEBRING: The movie itself has a dreamlike quality…also, the spirit of her husband Fred felt very present in the film as well, so both Patti and I felt it to be most appropriate to name it Dream of Life.

Do you see in Patti a kind of Mom figure for us all… someone who was there in our formative years, then faded largely from sight as we concerned ourselves with other things, then reappeared as a figure of wisdom and strength? 

When I first met Patti in Detroit, I saw her as mother figure. Over the years of getting to know Patti it has remained that way: I see her as a mother first, performer second. Although she is very nurturing in many ways, I am not sure I would describe her as a mother figure to us all.

I saw the Patti Smith Group 30 years ago inside the same building where your film will be screened, and it’s high time we saw her back on the Boardwalk. Any personal connections to Asbury or other local towns…past shoots on the local beaches, or just hanging out? 

I love the look and vibe of Asbury Park…(but) my only real experience in Asbury Park was the great concert at the Stone Pony in 1999. It is the footage in the film where she talks about the kids growing up, and performing with her son Jackson, while you see him jamming onstage with her.

Sorry to get all Barbara Walters on you, but who comes to mind as being a comparable figure to Patti, in the realm of a literary icon? A historical figure? A natural wonder?

Arthur RimbaudAbraham LincolnBetsy Ross? I don’t know; answering a question like this is next to impossible for me, as I find Patti incomparable!

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