THE COLOR OF CORAL Patti Smith

Punk poetess teams  up with Kevin Shields, sits for a
documentary, and more.

BY JASON FERGUSON

 

2008 is shaping up to be a
banner year of sorts of Patti Smith. Not that she needs banners, parades, or
the like, of course. But just in the first six months she’s already been the
subject of three books, one about her first album (33 1/3’s Horses, by
Philip Shaw, currently reviewed in BLURT’s books section), one a
career overview/analysis (Praeger’s The Words and Music of Patti Smith,
by Joe Tarr), and one a paperback edition of her Auguries of Innocence poetry book (Ecco Press). There are two more volumes due this year as well: Land
250
, a collection of her photography being published to commemorate a Smith
exhibition which ran March 28 – June 22 at the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art
Contemporain in Paris; and Patti Smith: Dream of Life, a photography
book by filmmaker Steven Sebring intended to serve as a companion piece to his
documentary of the same name.

 

Sebring’s film was recently
featured at the Philadelphia and Sundance Film
Festivals (it won an award for cinematography at the latter) and will premiere
at New York City’s
Film Forum. The first officially sanctioned Smith documentary, it’s scheduled
to run from August 6 to August 19, and it clearly marks a cinematic arrival of
sorts for Smith — not that she needs an arrival, introduction or the like, of
course. (BLURT readers can get a taste of it by viewing the trailer in our
Video Section.) Perhaps even more significant is the fact that on May 16, Smith
was honored by Rowan University in Glassboro,
NJ, granting her an honorary
Doctor of Letters degree in recognition of her success in the fields of music,
literature and art.

 

Meanwhile, there’s this new
double-CD that arrives in stores next week, a collaboration between Smith and My
Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. It’s the latest entry in Smith’s
ever-expanding CV, although it probably won’t provoke fan excitement along the
levels of, say, Horses or the Sebring film. Indeed, there’s a nagging
sense listening to The Coral Sea (PASK) that it should be … well, better.
The knot of anticipation collaboration like this evokes is really almost
ridiculous. Smith. Shields. A poetic homage to Robert Mapplethorpe. Two separate,
hour-long performances. This, this meeting between the great 20th century punk
poetess and the deified master of postpunk guitar atmospherics, it should
transport me, yes?

 

Sadly, it does not. It’s
through no fault of Smith or Shields, though. This two-disc presentation of two
live performances of Smith’s “The Coral Sea”
(one from 2005, one from 2006; neither substantially different in tone from the
other) finds the both of them digging deep into their artistic hearts to
deliver the goods. Smith’s emotional state is predictably tense, empathetic and
defiant. Shields’ guitar work is surprisingly emotional and gently
improvisational.

 

Yet, in much the same way that
the book is always better than the movie, the Loveless better than the
live show, The Coral Sea is ultimately a failure of format. Leafing
through the open, airy pages of Smith’s 1996 book, you get a sense of the epic
scope of this poem that tells of a metaphorical journey, but the words are also
lent an additional, individual weight. There’s no distraction of sound, no
inflection of voice to impart unnecessary and inappropriate context. When
listening to The Coral Sea – rather than reading it – one is continually
easing into Smith’s vocal rhythm or getting lost in the gelatinous noise
emanating from Smith’s guitars. That’s not to say that these aren’t effective
performances. They are, indeed. It’s just that this piece of poetry is both
delicate and dense and hearing it is a totally different (and somewhat
disorienting) experience than reading it.

 

[Note: the PASK label is an
imprint created by Smith and Shields, but at present there is no PASK website.
Patti Smith’s official site is at www.pattismith.net and Shields is via the My Bloody Valentine site, www.mybloodyvalentine.net.
]

 

[Photo Credit of Smith and Shields: Matia Zopellaro/RETNA]

 

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