Rock icon Patti Smith tells unvarnished truth in TV doc

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The questions are obvious; the answers simple, grounded and direct.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/12/2009 (4790 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The questions are obvious; the answers simple, grounded and direct.

When a punk-rock icon sits down to discuss her life, career and the decision to walk away from stardom at the height of her popularity, you can only hope the explanations for the absence are as honest as the music that went missing.

And without a pause, a twitch or a blink, Patti Smith tells it exactly as it was, and is.

Patti Smith left touring behind to raise her family.

"I left rock ‘n’ roll in 1979, really at the peak of my time," Smith said last summer when she met with TV critics in Los Angeles during PBS’s portion of the U.S. networks’ semi-annual press tour. "It was a difficult decision, but one that I’ve never regretted.

"I withdrew from the public eye … and went to Detroit and got married (to former MC5 guitarist Fred Smith) and had a family. And my husband and I both wanted our children to have a traditional childhood, which didn’t include being dragged from place to place on the road. So we decided to live a simpler life."

Smith, who returned to performing shortly after he husband’s death in 1994 (at the invitation of Bob Dylan, who asked her to join him on tour), is the subject of an extensive PBS/P.O.V. profile, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on PPTV.

After meeting the "godmother of punk" during a 1995 fashion photo shoot, photographer and aspiring filmmaker Steven Sebring made a connection with Smith and promptly spent the next 11 years documenting various facets of her previously extremely private life.

"It’s very accurate," Smith said of Sebring’s documentary portrayal of her. "It was shot between the ages of 50 and 60 years old, and it reflects my lifestyle, my relationship with my children and my mom and dad, the things that I was involved in — protesting the policies of the Bush administration, pursuing writing and, you know, making new friends and being encouraged by old friends. So I would say it’s a pretty accurate picture."

Smith, who rose out of New York City’s punk-rock scene in the mid-’70s and became one most influential poet/songwriters of her generation, influenced a wave of literate and socially conscious rockers that includes R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, U2 and Sonic Youth.

After being away from the music scene for more than a decade and a half, Smith said she’s glad to have found, upon returning to the stage, that rock ‘n’ roll is anything but dead.

"I think that in the current state of rock ‘n’ roll, we actually have two states," she explained. "Obviously, the state of the music business is in shambles, but … the state of the people, I think, is fine.

"We’re in a very democratic era of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not an era of rock gods. You don’t have the, you know, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Grace Slick — there isn’t really the pantheon of rock gods and goddesses that we had in my time. But we have something equally as interesting, and that’s the fact that rock ‘n’ roll is really, more than ever, the people’s cultural voice.

"You go on MySpace or different websites, and there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of people making their own music, expressing themselves, exchanging files and deciding how they want to hear music and how they want to distribute music. Everything is changing, and I think that’s fine. Rock ‘n’ roll was a revolutionary cultural voice that was people-based, and I think the people have taken it over."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

 

TV WORTH WATCHING

Miracle on 34th Street (tonight at 8, CBC) — Yes, it’s the 1947 original, which is the only version of this story worth seeing, and yes, it’s the gloriously un-colourized, traditionally black-and-white presentation. Edmund Gwenn won a supporting-actor Oscar for his portrayal of the one and only (as decided in a New York City courtroom) Santa Claus.

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (Thursday at 3 p.m., BBC Canada) — If you’ve got a few lull-inclined moments in between present-opening carnage and Christmas-dinner overstuffing, settle in and watch as Rowan Atkinson and company turn Dickens’ classic festive tale completely upside down.

 

TV ON DVD

Glee — Season 1, Volume 1: Road to the Sectionals (release date: Dec. 29) — The most buzz-worthy new show of the 2009-10 TV season follows up its prime-time success, iTunes-spinoff popularity and soundtrack CD sales with a rushed-to-market DVD release of the first 13 episodes of its rookie season. And actually, yes, it is worth all the fuss.

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Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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