by Blurt in New Music on Friday 4 July 2008

2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for 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), 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, 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.