When Patti Smith sang "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" to open the first song on her first album, 1975's Horses, she was an emerging icon, a rail-thin protopunk thumbing her nose at the heavens, daring the nearest deity to leave her alone and go save someone else.
When Patti Smith sings "God only knows we're only given as much as the heart can endure" on the closing cut of her new album Gone Again, she completes a sharp descent back to earth. The indestructible goddess of punk becomes human, with the wounds to prove it. She allows herself to mourn the untimely deaths of a spouse, a brother and a pair of close friends, recent losses that came in rapid, senseless succession. She becomes, in short, a survivor, her faith in herself challenged but intact. Gone Again is the sound of a soul aggressively grieving. As such, it's a staggering document.
Consider Patti Smith's life: she makes her first mark in the early '70s as a performance poet and occasional actress in the New York underground. She co-writes a play with Sam Shepard (Cowboy Mouth). She dabbles in rock criticism for Creem magazine. She pens songs for friends in local bands (Blue Oyster Cult's Agents of Fortune). She begins reciting poetry pieces backed by a scorching rock band led by guitarist Lenny Kaye. Her performances become Petri dishes for punk. By the mid-'70s, she's headlining CBGB's with the Ramones and Television. She releases what's considered by some the first authentic punk single, "Piss Factory," backed by a take on the Hendrix classic "Hey Joe." The single is financed and released by her roommate and lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith goes on to release four albums in five years. She co-writes Bruce Springsteen's first hit ("Because the Night"), then burns out, playing her last show in 1979 in front of 70,000 fans at a soccer stadium in Italy.
She gives it all up for love. She marries former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and moves to Detroit to become the coolest housewife in Michigan. She raises two kids and spends her free time studying arcane subjects like 16th-century Japanese fiction, and writing novels. She essentially disappears. Her only creative vital sign of the decade is an album released with her husband in 1988, the largely overlooked Dream of Life.
Then the gods get crazy. In 1989, Mapplethorpe, by now a famously controversial photographer, dies of AIDS. The following year, Smith's longtime keyboardist, Richard Sohl, dies at the age of 37. In 1994, Smith's husband dies of a heart attack at 45. Weeks after that funeral, Smith's younger brother dies.
The jolting series of losses would likely collapse the spirit of a lesser being, but Smith survives. Her grief marks almost every notable musing on Gone Again. The album starts with the title cut, a rock-hardened waltz that comes off at once angry and celebratory as she shouts, "Hey now man's own kin/we lay down into the wind/grateful arms, grateful limbs/grateful heart he's gone again." Smith takes a softer approach with "My Madrigal," a beautiful, melodic song that grips the heart and won't let go. She sings of "waltzing beneath motionless skies, beneath God's point of view," the words honing the memories, scissor-sharp. Then Smith makes the final cut, raising her voice as if pleading, "You pledged me your heart/till death do us part." The sentiment turns taut as Smith combats her mourning head-on, her vocals a near-operatic wail, challenging grief for everything it's got.
Smith's innate unwillingness to compromise makes an even stronger impression on a song about the death of someone she never met. The song, "About a Boy," concerns Kurt Cobain. It's an eight-minute reflection on Cobain's suicide as seen from a distance. Smith sings with a sense of weariness, as if resigned to fail in trying to understand yet another death of yet another dreamer, this one gone from "a chaos/raging sweet/. . . toward another kind of peace/toward the great emptiness." But an undercurrent of anger closes the song, with Smith taunting Cobain as someone "so, so blessed," and addressing him repeatedly as a child and a boy. The frustration feels honest from someone who watched a close friend struggle for every last breath against the onslaught of AIDS. Such memories leave Cobain's willful self-destruction well short of legend.
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Musically, Smith relies on simple song structures--often waltzes--to carry her words. That's mostly because she only recently learned to play guitar, her husband providing lessons during the last months of his life. The CD does include a few more adventurous song constructions, most of them colored with an East Coast grit. Early Velvet Underground can be heard on "Beneath the Southern Cross," with its lack of backbeat and accompanying edginess, and Smith sings as if she survived misguided voice lessons from Lou Reed and Bob Dylan on "Dead to the World," a song that benefits far more from its smart, subtle guitar tones.
Smith's current band is made up of the enduring Kaye on guitar and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, both survivors from the original Patti Smith Group. The disc's other familiar names include guest shots by ex-Television guitarist Tom Verlaine and some keyboard work by Velvet's co-founder John Cale, who produced Smith's first album back when she was a self-anointed "rock 'n' roll nigger," flipping off anything approaching authority.
That particular version of Patti Smith is long gone. She's turning 50 this year. Her trademark black hair is streaked with gray. She's a mom to a pair of teenage boys. She now is authority. And she remains a paragon to every female rocker currently screaming into a microphone. Without Patti Smith there'd be no P.J. Harvey, no Courtney Love, no Alanis Morissette or Tracy Bonham.
And without Patti Smith, there'd be no one to compose a song as moving and close to the marrow as "Farewell Reel," the closing cut on Gone Again and a fitting testament to Smith's artistry and courage. "I'll get by," she sings to her husband, "I'll salute our love/and send you a smile/and move on." Her bare voice, backed only by chiming acoustic strums, puts the album and a painful part of her life delicately to rest.