Will the Real Patti Smith
Please Stand Up? +
Nico, 1988: A Really Good Aging-Punk-Rocker Movie
I am feeling some guilt for kinda dissing Patti Smith in the last essay I wrote – just glibly dashing off a few lines about her Tribeca Film Festival appearance at the premier of Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, the new documentary about her 40th anniversary performance of her 1975 debut album of the same name, followed by a live concert at the Beacon Theater. I hadn’t planned on writing about that film or event, but it sort of just came out as I typed my introduction to a lengthy film review of a wild, crazy, mind-blowing movie, Ghostbox Cowboy, which was part art and part politics and part comedy and part tragedy. I think it was just my subconscious mind that put together referencing Patti Smith as part of my intro discussion of that film (which does make a kind of surreal sense), although… what I wrote was not exactly complimentary of Patti, and certainly not worthy of the musical and artistic giant that she is.
Here is what I wrote: “If Patti Smith (my hero) can use the word “motherfucker” three times in every sentence, which she recently did in and at the premier of Horses, the new and intentionally-terrible documentary film about her, followed by a bizarrely-hostile live performance at Beacon Theater (yeah, I know she was a punk rocker, and she still can rock like no one else, but she’s 70 beloved years old now and has essentially accepted the role of Goddess Mother Earth, so… fewer “motherfuckers” out of her mouth might be in order)… all that and be only praised and worshipped by the press the next day, then that gives me permission to say this:”
So… I want to start here by recalling one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had – maybe the best, which was seeing Patti Smith play at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, in the summer of 2016. It was my first summer in New York. I had moved here from Chicago, which I had proudly claimed as My City for most of my adult life. But here I was running around NYC, eating up all the art and film and music around town like a kid, exclaiming, “I feel like I am the last person on the planet to realize that New York City is the best city in the world!”
And my friend took me to see Patti Smith play live, outdoors, at Lincoln Center, for FREE (!!!) on a glorious summer evening, surrounded by glistening NYC skyscrapers. I had never seen Patti Smith live before. I knew her music, and some of her poetry, and some of the photographs, but… no experience of her like this. It was such a small, casual venue, but Patti Smith rocked the sky that night. She literally shredded her guitar – broke the strings playing her final song. I will never forget it. (I won’t include her playlist because… you know, everything she sang was just everything you could ever want to hear her sing.) She also ranted about Donald Trump, shouted about how we needed to VOTE, talked about the world, talked about herself… she was ferocious, she was funny, she was bright and the very definition of magnificent. That event was part rock concert, part political rally, and part religious revival, and all of it such a pure expression of brains and guts and heart and soul. Patti Smith was a Force of Nature. She was Earth Shaking. She was Gorgeous. She was Transcendent.
That is how I think of Patti Smith. She was 70 years old at the time, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to see her in what might be one of her final concerts. Ha! As she yelled in her new documentary, while she played a raucous cover of “My Generation,”… “I am old, and I’m gonna get older, motherfuckers!” And as amusing as that was, that was part of the issue I had with that night – both Patti live and her new documentary (which was directed by Steven Sebring, who also directed the previous Patti Smith documentary, Dream of Life).
I need to add that in between these two events, I saw Patti Smith another time. It was in Brooklyn, at what was supposed to be a reading and book signing for her new book, M Train. She read a little from the book. Then, she said she’d rather sing than read, and asked the crowd if they agreed (duh), and so we were treated to a surprise spontaneous concert, which felt like a private performance. Patti was sort of in mellow mode that night (which for her is still passionate). She sang and she played and she stopped often to tell stories and talk about what was on her mind and to interact with this devoted audience, whom she seemed to respect and appreciate almost as much as we did her.
That is what was missing at the Beacon Theater Monday night. I wasn’t looking for mellow; I was looking for that brilliant, radiant energy – that passionate person. I mean, Patti Smith seems to have accepted the mantle of being worshipped as Mother Earth herself. (And should Mother Earth really be yelling MotherFucker all the time?) She is adored; she is revered. As she should be. Her career as a musician and poet and artist has been extraordinary, as has been her activism and philanthropy. And yes, she started more than 40 years ago as a growling, raging, cursing punk rocker, which helped change the world. And her anniversary performance of her seminal Horses album, and the accompanying documentary were intended to be celebrations of that, as they should be. She is a legend in her own time.
And it really does pain me to say it, but at TFF, both in the movie and in person… the raw and original energy that made her, seemed to be lacking. Or, not lacking so much as … being forced back on stage. I felt she was playing a role – reenacting her former self. There, I said it. Patti Smith has never been anything but TRUE, and I sort of felt like I was watching someone else do a tribute concert – someone else try to impersonate her former, fierce and snarling punk-rocker youth.
Yes, Patti can totally still rock out, harder and louder than anyone. But… why was she trying so hard to prove it? Why was she repeatedly yelling insults into the audience, calling everyone motherfucker. again and again? Why did she seem so angry – at the world at large as well as her own fans? It just didn’t seem like that true and tremendous, tough and well-seasoned, commanding and self-assured, brilliantly and powerfully loving force of nature that she has become.
(And, kinda separately, I know that everyone was so thrilled that Patti brought out Bruce Springsteen to play with her, but… why did Patti never play guitar during this show? What was up with that? Btw, Bruce and Patti performed “Because the Night,” a song they co-wrote in 1978, and that was indeed one of the highlights of the concert — not because of Bruce, but because his appearance seemed to soften Patti some and put her in a better mood.
Then Patti brought out Stipe, and her daughter Jesse Smith, for “People Have the Power,” to close the show. That was the highlight. Finally, with that last song, this mini-concert felt like a celebration. Patti had found her groove. Too bad it took so long to get there And btw, it still didn’t begin to rival other renditions of that song I’ve heard Patti sing..)
And, in that documentary, did I not hear Patti say to Steven, “let’s make this film really bad, like Andy Warhol would,” or something along those lines? I get that Sebring has already made the thoughtful, personal documentary of Patti’s life, and this was intended to be a pure concert movie, but… sorry to disagree with apparently every other person who was there… I did NOT think it was beautifully or artfully shot, and it did seem to be “intentionally terrible” (as I said in my Ghostbox Cowboy review). Most importantly, neither the film nor the performance seemed to me to express the brains and guts and heart and soul of the Real Patti Smith.
And okay, I concede that I know nothing about music and should not even be speaking my mind about this, but… since I already made those glib and unflattering remarks yesterday, I figure I should at least set the record straight and say how much I do sincerely adore Patti Smith, and how much Helen Highly admires her career and her life. And yet I do not recommend that anyone use this Horses documentary to remember her by; just get the indisputably great original album instead. I’m just saying.
p.s. I should also note, for serious Patti Smith fans, that she is also depicted at Tribeca2018 in the documentary Mapplethorpe, when she and the famous photographer were young lovers.
Nico, 1988: A Really Good Aging-Punk-Rocker Movie
Danish actress and musician Trine Dyrholm delivers a high-voltage performance as Christa Päffgen—better known as Nico, the Andy Warhol darling and one-time chanteuse of the Velvet Underground. At the outset of Nico, 1988, Nico is approaching 50, tumbling down the slopes of drug addiction, and desperate to regain custody of her son. Her manager, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), sensing her need for purpose, sets her on a tour across Europe; back on the road, she’s equal parts tenacious, manic, and erratic.
Writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli gives us an unapologetic portrait of a woman who never cared about being pretty or nice; she is the antithesis of traditional female virtue. Nicchiarelli blends a tangible reverence for her subject with dark humor, crafting a riveting examination of a fragile artist constantly pushed to perform. The audience is witness to the anguished and scattered psychology of Nico’s final years. With precision, care, and grit, Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm capture the inner turmoil of a fearless icon, artist, and mother struggling to reconcile the consequences of her tortured life.