Patti Smith: Punk Pioneer
Patti Smith's new album isn't another Horses or even another Dream of Life. But it is another Patti Smith album, and that's noteworthy all by itself. Not just because of her iconic position in the rock-and-roll cult of personality, but because her renewed interest in performing and recording means she's got something she wants to say. And when Patti Smith speaks, sings, chants, or intones, it's worth our time to listen. She does all four on her new Gone Again (Arista). And at its best, the album presents Patti Smith the poet, hurling lightning-bolt-and-rose-petal images across a shifting landscape engineered by her improv-minded band.Although it includes rock songs, Gone Again isn't a song-oriented album. It comes from a place that seems too emotional to be caged in a tight verse/chorus/verse structure -- too full of ideas, too full of need and want, too full of a life's observations digested and returned as thoughts, suggestions, challenges. There's pain and loss and gentleness here as well, in songs that reflect the deaths of Smith's brother, her husband, and Kurt Cobain. And there are musical lessons about freedom, about the denial of limitations, and about the nature of what a performance on a rock-marketed CD can become if left to develop without the cage of wholly predetermined structure.What there isn't is an abundance of possible hits. It's pretty much the opening "Gone Again," with its Big Rock drums-and-guitar blastoff recalling the Jimmy Iovine --produced Easter, that seems destined to carry this CD up the charts. There's a hypnotic guitar lick, Smith singing a nursery-rhyme melody then baring fangs for the chorus, and a complex lyric about honor, betrayal, and transcendence. Great bridge, too: short, sharp phrases that ricochet off one another as the band pull back to let her sing out -- "One last breath/The sky is high/The hungry earth/The empty vein/The ashes rain/Death's own bed/Man's own kin/Into the wind/Hole in life/Love knot tied/Brain undone."Many of the CD's songs have an acoustic base. Several kick off with a bright, droning acoustic-guitar strum that serves as wallpaper for Smith's lyrics or more-generous instrumental flourishes like fellow art-punk veteran Tom Verlaine's thread of feedback and melody that trails through "Beneath the Southern Cross." I suspect the strumming -- which is quite crude -- is Smith's. She'd been studying guitar with her late husband, Fred Smith, who played guitar in the gritty and influential MC5, as they began working toward the recording of whatever this album would have been had he not died in November 1994.The acoustic guitar gives the album a non-rock feel -- at least, non-alternative-rock, which has become nearly as Top 40 -- driven a medium as contemporary R&B. The sense of Smith's music heading away from the mechanics of radio-savvy pop is buoyed by the striking explorations of electric-guitar and keyboard textures that course through numbers like "About a Boy," Smith's paean to Cobain, and "Fireflies," which again unfurls Verlaine's six-string-freak flag.Since improvisation has always been a part of Smith's bolder recordings and remains an essential element of her concert performances, such open-ended electric accompaniment for her poetry isn't surprising. And the acoustic notions are on a par with recent stripped-down gigs she's done with her longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, as well as her well-established love for Dylan and other musicians in the folk and blues tradition. The oddest tune along those bloodlines is the country-inclined "Dead to the World." The title seems ironic, since the lyrics are an invitation to experience. "I heard me a music that drew me to dancing/Lo I turned under his spell/I opened my coat but he never came closer/I bolted the door and whispered oh well," Smith sings midway through. But she does so in a sort of Okie plainsong, a little chant that would seem comfortable sung around the campfire in a remake of Of Mice and Men. To heighten the effect, there's dulcimer on the tune as well as those nifty multiple string bends that guitarists use to mimic the sound of a crying pedal steel.So, by now you should be getting the idea that there are no rock anthems on Gone Again. No "Because the Night," no "People Have the Power," no "Dancing Barefoot." Not even little anthems like "Frederick" or "Rock and Roll Nigger." Yet the scope of her latest -- with its wide panorama of sound; a band anchored by her Patti Smith Group collaborators Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty; unabashedly smart, emotional lyrics; and the Bush-era (no, not George) catchy title track -- indicates she's still capable of hitmaking. Which leaves us to believe that she simply didn't give a shit about hits this time out, and that Gone Again is a work closer to the heart than to the charts.Smith is such a profoundly good artist that it's dangerous to try to surmise what she wanted to accomplish with this material. She could be on another plane entirely from the facile assumption that she's working through and sharing the losses of Fred Smith, her brother Todd, and the young inspiration Cobain. Or sharing what she's learned from the rays of sunshine that sometimes peek through the black clouds of despair. But the simplicity of the acoustic arrangements and the absence of heavyweight hooks seem almost a baring act, a way of keeping her motives uncluttered by the big guitar flourishes of her previous recordings.So a song like the album's final number, "Farewell Reel," should then be taken at face value. Obviously written for Fred Smith, it tells us straight off: "It's been a hard time/And when it rains/It rains on me/The sky just opens/And when it rains/It pours. I walk alone/Assaulted it seems/By tears from heaven/And darling I can't help/Thinking those tears are yours."It's very personal, hardly the stuff of anthems. She travels a similarly poignant lane when she puts her back-alley-opera voice to singing about Cobain. Just before turning her band free, like opening the door to a cage full of messenger pigeons, Smith chants, "From a chaos/Raging sweet/From the deep/And dismal street/Toward another/Kind of peace/Toward the great/Emptiness." Now, you can image an arena-rock specialist like Jon Bon Jovi singing the Springsteen-Smith-written "Because the Night," but try to picture him wrapping his over-emotive tonsils around lyrics like those. Or the transcendent "Wing," for that matter, which finds Smith crooning "I was a vision/In another eye/And they saw nothing/No future at all/Yet I was free/I needed nobody/It was beautiful/It was beautiful." How many rock tunes convey alienation, acceptance, and peace all at once and so deftly?In a way, this album returns Smith to a mode of music-and-poetry making she favored before forming the Patti Smith Group in 1975 and cutting the Horses album with Velvet Underground veteran John Cale as producer. (Cale reappears here, playing organ on "Beneath the Southern Cross," which is also enhanced by the sweet voice of Jeff Buckley.) In the year before Horses, her line-up was essentially a trio with guitarist Kaye and pianist Richard Sohl, sometimes augmented by various drummers. Improvisation and the keyboard's acoustic voice were the musical cornerstones of their gigs. It wasn't until Smith had become the toast of New York City and traveled to the West Coast for a handful of shows that she added guitarist Ivan Kral and Daugherty to form her Group and become a dedicated houserocker.Like Television, Smith is considered one of the pioneers of punk rock, yet her group and Verlaine's influential band had a different set of intentions from those of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. The Smith/Verlaine school of '70s rock revisionism wasn't so much rebellion as brain surgery. Sure, they wallowed in their love of the great garage bands of the '60s, like the Seeds and the Count Five. But their arrangements and lyrics transcended simple chords and simple rhymes for a sonic and aural interplay more comparable to free jazz, or perhaps the most rhapsodic elements of the blues-pegged improvisations Cream squeezed out on stage.Smith and Kaye and Verlaine did cherish pop brevity and style, hooks and drive, and they hated the glibness of the prefabricated corporate rock bands. Their response, however, was to try to return oxygen to rock's brain, which the Pistols and Ramones lobotomized. That's a harsh generalization, and it could never be said that Joey Ramone or Johnny Lydon is stupid. (Lydon's a jerk, but he's not stupid.) But Smith and Television never let entertainment value drag them anywhere, which can't be said of the Ramones or the Pistols, whose very images -- cool and fun as they may be -- exhibit a vaudeville mentality.So if Smith's new album is difficult, that's fine. It means that after having been knocked on her ass by fate, she's once again gotten her feet planted on the bedrock of her music. Besides, some of life's best experiences -- running a marathon, climbing a mountain, love -- are difficult.