Dreamy Patti Smith Visits SF, Enjoys Fans, Party, Shrimp
Words and Photos by Meredith Brody
Patti Smith greeted several hundred of the faithful before and after an afternoon screening last Sunday of the new documentary Dream of Life at the Lumiere, where the movie is continuing its run. The movie is an intimate collage film, recorded over about a dozen years by director/cinematographer Steven Sebring, who shot the singer-songwriter in New York, Detroit, Paris, London, Jerusalem, and other far-flung locations, during concerts, at her homes, with her children and parents, and making pilgrimages to the grave sites of people she knew and/or admired, interspersed with many many limo rides.
The film, narrated by Smith, begins with a brisk potted rundown of her life (“an adventure of our own design”) – birth, New Jersey, factory, New York, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chelsea Hotel, first record, marriage to Fred Sonic Smith, two kids, Mapplethorpe dies, husband dies, brother Todd dies, back on the road – which is when Sebring started filming.
(Patti Smith and Steven Sebring, in matching hats)
People familiar with Smith will recognize appearances of her consistent obsessions that pop up throughout the film: in addition to Robert Mapplethorpe and Fred Sonic Smith, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe. In a charming sequence, Patti visits her parents, Beverly and Grant, in the New Jersey home she grew up in, complete with an un-ironic collection of jokey black-and-white cow memorabilia, and consumes a rather dry-looking hamburger. (When she excuses the family dog for slobbering, she admits that she does, too. I was always bothered a bit by her onstage spitting, memorialized here in a clip where she ends up with unwiped spittle on her chin while chanting an impassioned antiwar Ginsberg poem.) In another, equally charming clip, she giggles girlishly and flirtatiously while playing guitar (hers a 1931 Gibson he’d given her decades ago) with old lover and co-writer Sam Shepard, going so far as to reveal matching tattoos they’d gotten on his hand and her knee, also decades ago. “That was a weird night,” he says, dryly.
(Patti exiting the Lumiere screening after her Q and A)
Smith’s angular face can look strangely beautiful and then gaunt and ratty; a sudden insight that she is increasingly Lincolnesque comes well before the camera seeks out a Lincoln bust that apparently lives on the floor of Smith’s New York house (which, unless we’re crazy, was previously home to Anna Wintour. Though, as a friend likes to point out, both could be possible. We’re pretty sure that the Wintour décor was considerably different, though Smith’s is quite chic in its bohemian, casually messy way. She explicates some of its contents, including a tambourine and glass necklace made for her by Mapplethorpe; a small antique Persian urn containing some of his remains – also displayed for us, poured out on Smith’s hand; and her favorite handmade smocked child’s dress.)
In much of the footage, as well as during her Lumiere appearance, Patti wears her familiar androgynous white shirt, black tie, roomy jacket and slim pants (as memorialized in the iconic Mapplethorpe picture used as the cover of her debut album, Horses). During concerts she favors going braless under ratty-looking t-shirts that, however, have impressive provenance: Ann Demeulemeester or Prada. Prada features prominently in a sequence with erstwhile beau and bandmate Oliver Ray, so prominently, in fact, that during the Q and A the product-placement-savvy Lumiere audience was flabbergasted to learn that none of the $1.9 million tab was subsidized by them. Smith herself seemed shocked at the figure: “You didn’t tell me that. I’m sorry!” she said to Sebring.
(Steven Sebring, Director of Dream of Life)
“You don’t know how complicated it is to make even a little movie,” she told the crowd. “I thought that because it was my music, we could just use it, but no, we had to license everything through a record company. Some scenes we had to eliminate, like if a Chuck Berry song was playing in the background, and they wanted $100,000.” (“More,” Sebring says). “We had to get permission if I was reading a book. It’s somewhat demoralizing. You just think you’re doing a nice friendly film and then it’s a nightmare.”
A reference to Todd, her brother, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1994, shortly after her husband did, led to a reminiscence of Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel meeting Todd backstage at one of Smith’s 70s concerts and “it was very clear to them who the coolest guy was.”
(Sydney Goldstein, founder and Executive Director of City Arts and Lectures, and Graham Leggatt, executive director of the San Francisco Film Festival)
After the screening and a signing of a new book based on it, Smith and Sebring attended a cocktail party in their honor at the art-and-music stuffed home of Nion McEvoy, Chairman/CEO of Chronicle Books and owner of Spin magazine.
When making a gracious speech about the occasion, Smith said “I’ve never been in a private home in San Francisco before.” (“They’re ALL just like this,” someone – who could have been me – responded from the crowd.) She acknowledged, along with “delicious shrimp,” and “the beautiful musical instruments,” the wonderful photographs that covered the walls – “Avedon, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman…” (There were also paintings that to these dazzled eyes appeared to include a Basquiat and an Ed Ruscha, as well as local still life painter Michael Tompkins.)
Patti said that, coming into her life just after her brother Todd had died, Sebring had become a kind of brother to her. Sebring, dazzled not only by the shrimp but the mushroom-stuffed crepes, asparagus with aioli, tiny quiches, and miniature hamburgers that constantly circulated, complimented McEvoy on the equally minute ancient Asian woman, longtime party chef for McEvoy, who turned these delights out from a kitchen lit by the only Droog 85 Lamps chandelier I’ve ever seen in real life (as opposed to a high end shelter magazine). One intrepid partygoer attempted to extract the name of the caterer, for her own future use: “She’s private,” a helper sniffed.
When the party ended, Smith slipped away in a discreet waiting black town car, just as we’d seen so many times in Dream of Light.