Record Machine: Dream of Life by Patti Smith

For how much I enjoy and respect Patti Smith, I own far too little of her music. On CD, I have 1996’s Gone Again and 2000’s Gung Ho, and that’s it. I don’t even have Horses yet, which I realize is a major gap, particularly since the time leading into that album is so lovingly documented in one of my favorite books, her memoir Just Kids. Dream of Life is my first vinyl purchase from her discography.

Patti Smith - Dream of Life
I chose not to crop the surrounding items on the table because I felt “Dream of Life” could encompass items from daily life. That my photo was part of the process. (Cover photo by Robert Mapplethorpe)

Released in 1988, Dream of Life sounds very much of its time with echoes of ’80s keyboards and hints of the gravelly rock amassing power for the coming decade. It was her first album since 1979’s Wave, with the time between dedicated to having her two children, Jackson and Jesse, with bandmate-turned-husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Perhaps the most well-known song from this album is “People Have The Power:”

I was dreaming in my dreaming
Of an aspect bright and fair
And my sleeping it was broken
But my dream it lingered near
In the form of shining valleys
Where the pure air recognized
And my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry
That the people have the power
To redeem the work of fools
Upon the meek the graces shower
It’s decreed the people rule

It is an outstanding call for revolution, but one that recognizes that everyone’s revolution is different. Personal. Indeed, 1988 was the time of Reagan-into-Bush-Sr., a political climate that, while providing material for discussion, was not entirely supportive of artists. My own gestures towards change are amenable to her approach — that we can find peace and transcendence in art, but constructive action is what makes for long-term change. The fights are always long, but one must be present for them to work. Change comes through conversation, through awareness, through working together, and “Like cream the waters rise.”

There is not a finite amount of power in the world — only disparities in its distribution.

Patti Smith - Dream of Life liner notes
“The Valley was straining with voices, hopes and dreams punctuated with shrill salutes and calls. These hopes echoed thru out the surrounding hills; from the villages above and the valley below. The world, it seemed, was swelling, about to erupt through the sheer bellowing of the living mold. From every portion of the earth, the cries of the people of that earth. The wild and the solemn; the humble and the arrayed. And such weeping, such rejoicing and such beating upon the heart. […]”
Patti Smith’s voice can be both forceful or an intoxicating pour of molasses. Not all of her songwriting is about the global scale. She speaks of love, of friends lost, and she pays tribute in her own way.

“Looking For You (I Was)” is the sort of Pretenders-esque song that makes clear, for me, Chrissie Hynde’s lyrical shortcomings. I love Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, but it’s easy to forget that some of their appeal is in the packaging. The posturing. Bad-ass, take-me-as-I-am, dig-my-leather-jacket-and-sneer. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as it is some of the very fabric of rock ‘n roll, but there’s something refreshing about Patti Smith’s anti-costumery. She is more about what she is making, rather than what she, the artist, looks like while doing it. So if she wants to put poetry in a rock song, she’ll do it.

Many is the time I knelt in the light
appealing to all that I know
Guide my eyes and steps
that I may find love true

Steven Sebring directed a documentary, released in 2008, also called Dream of Life, that follows Patti Smith’s life over eleven years. She talks about her inspirations, and we see some of her backstage life and personal relationships. It occurs after the death of her husband, who died at age 45 in 1994. I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but what I have seen, I enjoyed immensely. (Brain Pickings has it available in two parts here.) I would love to be able to have the photo book that accompanies it.

So maybe my Patti Smith collection is not as complete as I’d like to be, but oh, what a start. Breathe in her words. Let them change you.

Patti Smith - Dream of Life back cover
“There are figure 8’s, infinity signs, gracing our chronology.
What does it all mean. Where shall we be going. […]”

Side A

People Have The Power
Going Under
Up There Down There
Paths That Cross

Side B

Dream of Life
Where Duty Calls
Looking For You (I Was)
The Jackson Song


By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

Leave a Reply