When Steven Sebring first started filming Patti Smith for his recently released cinematic portrait, Dream of Life, the duo didn’t exactly know what would become of the footage. What they did know is that it wasn’t going to become a rock ‘n’ roll documentary. The celluloid results of their work have since been sculpted into a glowing depiction of Smith’s personal and creative lives (and their symbiosis) across an 11-year period. The New York artist will offer Santa Barbara some insight into the depth and scope of both sides of her life next week when she joins Philip Glass at UCSB in homage to their good friend, Allen Ginsberg. No matter whether Smith is embracing her own creative impulses or reflecting on those who have inspired her, the results are heartfelt and provocative. Musician, poet, visual artist, mother, activist; Patti Smith might beautifully defy definition, but one thing is certain-she still has a lot more to say.
A few days prior to your performance with Philip Glass, Arts & Lectures will also be screening Steven Sebring’s Dream of Life. How did that project come about? I met Steven during a photo shoot in 1995 and he didn’t really know much about me and he wanted to film the things I did-film me working, film me with my children-just to learn more about me. He said that I could use the footage however I wanted, as home movies or maybe do something with them, so there was no pressure to do a documentary. It was really like a friend shooting some home movies.
The end result is more a portrait than a documentary. Why did you adopt that approach? I didn’t want a documentary, per say. I felt that I wasn’t ready to be written in stone. I’m a worker. I wanted it to be in present tense and I wasn’t interested in trying to survey my whole life in an hour and a half.
The project started when your life was at a real juncture. What is it like for you to live some of that in front of a camera? My husband had just died and I had to go out into the world and make a living and take care of my children, and it was a little daunting because I had not performed in 16 years. So it was nice to have Steven there to encourage me and make it a little more fun. In the wake of the project, it’s the only footage of my parents that I have because they have passed away, and I have some footage of my children growing up, and also some of my friends. So, for me personally, it is nice to have.
You’ve pursued so many other creative outlets prior to music. What attracted you to rock ‘n’ roll? I started as a poet and was very interested in performing poetry with more energy and fusing it with music, and I started working immediately with Lenny Kaye. Lenny played electric guitar and interpreted some of my emotion abstractly through sound. I always related poetry performance as something energetic and I liked performing. Just like Steven had no design to do a documentary, I had no design to have a rock ‘n’ roll band or to tour or make records. My design was to communicate language with people, but with a new energy, and it organically grew into rock ‘n’ roll, starting with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl.
I think a beautiful reflection of that design can be seen in your collaboration with Philip Glass in the presentation of Allen Ginsberg’s work. How did that project come about? We were both great friends of Allen and very, very close to him. Allen did a lot of work with the Buddhist community and would perform with Philip at Carnegie Hall to benefit Tibetan studies. I was asked to join them in the mid ’90s, and the three of us worked and performed together. When Allen passed away, Philip really mourned not being able to perform Allen’s poems anymore. So we tried it one year at Carnegie Hall in homage to Allen, where I read Allen’s poems and Philip played as he did with Allen, and there was so much chemistry between us that we decided to continue doing it.
Given that you have such an intimate relationship with verse yourself, what’s it like to be presenting somebody else’s words and feelings? I was very intimidated by Allen’s work. His language and his scope are so vast that I had a lot of trepidation. But when I started reading it orally, it seemed completely natural. I felt completely at home with Allen’s language and his vision. But it is an intense experience I have to say. Reading Allen’s poems is exhausting. That man had the energy of 10 men. So it’s not an easy task, but I relish it.
As well as delving into the work of Ginsberg here in town, I heard you will soon be joining Calexico and Jolie Holland for a tribute to R.E.M. in New York. There’s going to be a night honoring R.E.M. at Carnegie Hall. I did a night like that for Bruce Springsteen and another for Bob Dylan. Every year, [Carnegie pays] homage to a certain songwriter and a lot of artists get together and sing with the money going to charity, which makes it a nice thing to do.
It is certainly nice to see R.E.M. being honored in the same way as the likes of Dylan and Springsteen. How do you see their place in music? I think Michael [Stipe] is one of the great songwriters of his generation because he merges such intelligent and poetic lyrics while also mirroring his time. He is a true pop artist in the Warhol sense. His songs are really popular art. They’re more than just lyrics; they really travel over the border into poetry. But they also strike a commercial chord and I think that is quite a gift.
Your name comes up as a point of reference and inspiration for so many artists. Is that recognition a blessing or a burden for you? That I’m an inspiration? Oh! That’s a real compliment. I mean, I have spent my whole life citing the people who have inspired me-from Bob Dylan to Maria Callas-so if people are inspired by my band or the work we do, or inspired by anything I am involved with, that’s a good thing. I have always tried to do good work, or never tried to steer people into a bad place. So if I can be of some avail, I’m very happy.
Patti Smith and Philip Glass will perform Footnote to Howl: The Poet Speaks, Homage to Allen Ginsberg next Saturday, February 14, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, starting at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call 893-3535or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.