PATTI SMITH: CAMERA SOLO exhibit to May 19 ($19.50, srs $16, stu $11, free Wednesday 6-8:30 pm); Just Kids book signing, noon-2 pm, and An Evening Of Words And Song at 1st Thursdays, 7:30 and 9:45 pm (sold out), today (Thursday, March 7); Patti Smith: Dream Of Life screening and Q&A, Friday (March 8), 7 pm (sold out); all at Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West, 416-979-6648). Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (190 Princes’ Blvd), Saturday (March 9), doors 7 pm. Sold out.
Patti Smith's birthday celebration was different this year. Instead of performing clamorous, cathartic rock and roll at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, as she's done every year for the past decade and a half, she woke up early and went to Rockaway Beach, the peninsula neighbourhood in Queens made famous by the 1977 Ramones song.
But punk rock was not on the godmother of punk's mind.
She was there to look loss in the face. Three weeks before Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast in late October, she'd bought a small house near the ocean as a place to write in solitude. Her coming year is full of writing projects, among them a sequel to and screenplay for Just Kids, the powerful memoir that won her a National Book Award in 2010.
"Everything around the house was destroyed, so I have to rebuild," says Smith on the phone from her home in NYC. "It's still standing but has about 5 feet of salt water in it. I have to assess the damage and attend to it. The house has a lot to do with my future, so I went down to reacquaint myself with it and to say hello to the ocean."
Smith's voice is low, with raspy edges, and her speech is unhurried. A South Jersey accent turns words like "piano" into "piana" and "error" into "erra." The devastation hasn't left her sounding upset, wearied or, least of all, self-pitying. It's just a tiny old building, she insists. And besides, most of her neighbours lost everything.
She's found herself here before, forced to reassess and rebuild after enduring losses much vaster but almost as swift. In 1989, "the artist of her life," photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, succumbed to AIDS-related complications. They'd befriended each other in 1967 when she'd moved from New Jersey to New York City to become an artist. The relationship anchors Just Kids.
In 1994, she lost her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, former guitarist of Detroit rockers MC5 and the father of her two children, to a heart attack, followed shortly after by her brother Todd and then Richard Sohl, the original keyboardist for the Patti Smith Group. Sohl played on iconic 70s albums Horses and Radio Ethiopia, which merged Smith's spiritual poetic purging with electrifying punk confrontation.
It was during all this grieving that she turned to the Polaroid camera, journeying down a road that's led her to, among other art institutions, the Art Gallery of Ontario, where Camera Solo, her collection of black-and-white photographs, objects and film, is on display till May 19 and where she'll spend the bulk of this week giving performances and doing book signings and a Q&A after the screening of Steven Sebring's 2008 documentary Patti Smith: Dream Of Life.
"I've always taken pictures, but I've never counted myself as a photographer," Smith says. (She also doesn't consider herself a musician, but rather a performer and singer.) "I took a lot of 35 mm in the 80s, but after the death of my husband at the end of 1994 I just was so exhausted emotionally and physically that I couldn't really work. And for me, being a person who has a daily work ethic, that was really difficult.
"We had a Polaroid camera, so I took a few pictures one day of Nureyev's slippers, which I own. After some contemplation and getting the light the way I wanted it, I took the photograph and immediately saw the results. In my weariness, it was a way to feel like I'd accomplished something creatively with the least amount of physical effort. The immediacy appealed to me. As time went by, the Polaroid camera became my friend."
A gelatin silver print of that photo is in the exhibition, as are ones of Hermann Hesse's typewriter, Virginia Woolf's bed, Mapplethorpe's monogrammed bedroom slippers, Glenn Gould's chair, Arthur Rimbaud's spoon and fork and about 65 others.
There are a few of her family, but mostly the collection highlights Smith's attraction to her artistic heroes' tools of trade, their household items and their resting places - "objects that have a sort of relic quality for me," she says.
About her now deceased father's coffee cup, which Smith had given him on his 70th birthday, she says, "I didn't photograph it to remember him. I photographed it because it spoke of him. There's a difference. The photos aren't elegiac. They magnify the owner. I photographed [Chilean writer] Roberto Bolaño's chair - a simple, humble chair that he loved and always sat in when he wrote and took from apartment to apartment. The chair had a place of honour in his pantheon, so it has a place of honour in mine."
Though it's tempting to link the prevalence of tombstones and graveyard sculptures in the show to the deaths that have weighed heavily on her life, she says her love of cemeteries doesn't arise from morbid or melancholy impulses.
"I've always found graveyards beautiful. They're a place to think about the people who've meant a lot to you, to look at the sculpture or the carving or the quote on a headstone. You pass a little cherub and look at the dates and see that a child was buried there. It gives you a moment to contemplate that."
She pauses, and there's humour in her voice when she speaks again. "A cemetery is just a different kind of park."
Of course, the Polaroid camera is also a relic. The film is no longer manufactured, and Smith has only a few boxes left. She must be prudent. There's no room for a bad day, bad light or bad film. But she's been in this place before, too. When Mapplethorpe started taking Polaroids in the late 60s, the impoverished artists could afford just one pack of film with 10 shots for one week.
"So for Robert, every picture had to be its own world," she explains. "Whether it was of Marianne Faithfull or of a mattress or a self-portrait, he didn't have the luxury of taking 10 shots to get a good one. He really, really had to think about each one. That kind of work ethic, which was bred of economic necessity, became part of his process and also mine."
At 66, Smith remains first and foremost a worker, seemingly busier and more popular than ever. It's an event any time she releases an album (2012's acclaimed Banga is her most recent), and her performances sell out in a heartbeat; trying to get tickets to either of her two 1st Thursdays shows at the AGO was nothing short of mayhem.
And though glossy museums are a long way from her hardscrabble youth and boundary-shattering people-have-the-power music, which has earned her legendary status far beyond the punk genre, don't think her association with them has meant compromise on her end.
"I was part of the punk rock world, but it doesn't define me and I don't limit myself to it. I've always loved museums. They're a part of my life," Smith says, a little fiery. "For me, the definition of punk rock is ‘freedom.' Punk rock isn't confined to, you know, a little club on the Bowery that no longer exists. It's a state of mind. I still have a lot of the anarchistic energy that produced songs like Rock And Roll Nigger. You could've called Mozart a punk rocker, or Arthur Rimbaud - people who kick through doors.
"I'm not defined or confined by anyone's image of who I should be. Certainly my photographs are not punk rock pictures. And I'm not interested in whether what I do conforms to the image people have of me.
"I do my work, and I do it always with the same goal: to communicate from the highest place and give it to the people. Hopefully it's transformative and inspires them to do their own work or comforts them or pleases them or makes them think."