My sister is a year younger than I am, but it feels like she's older. For one thing, she's always been a step ahead on life's arc: Growing up in NYC in the '70s, she discovered punk rock while I wore out Hot Tuna records; she was the first to finish college, and lived in a communal East Village apartment while I futzed about in Queens. She flirted with and became bored by rock culture and drug culture early on, settled on a spiritual path (Buddhism) that gave her life a center, and began a family. All these years past and it still seems like I'm playing catch-up.
I share this history because I remember hearing Patti Smith's Horses for the first time in my sister's room, in our parents' house back in Flushing, Queens. She'd bought it after hearing bits of it on the radio (those were the last-gasp days of free-form FM), and I remember sitting on the ratty orange shag carpet and listening to that record wail from the plastic Toshiba compact stereo. It was so alien--if I'd heard women singing rock before (Janis, probably, and Grace Slick), I'd never heard anyone emoting quite like this: this boy-girl, so pale and handsome in the cover photo, with her sea of possibilities and her blinding desire to break out from the confines of her dingy life raft, and dive. To not want to go with her was unthinkable.
I don't remember how much we talked about it then, my sister and I. But Patti Smith's music took on a symbolic heft for both of us. In college she wrote her senior thesis on Smith's poetry; as things happened, her life, in its own way, followed a trajectory similar to the artist's. In me, the music branded an awe for the power of the poetic voice--it was part of what moved me to write, and I still use tapes of Smith's poetic readings when I teach--along with a disrespect for anything that would limit or hold a person down. "Beyond race gender baptism mathematics politricks," Smith wrote in the liner notes of Horses. More than just another rock & roll rebel, she was a yin-yang Janus head, a shamyn spirit who channeled the strengths of both sexes into art that aspired to great heights.
She was also a working-class girl from New Jersey who happened to become a rock star, then dropped out of sight to live quietly as a wife and mother in the suburbs of Detroit. And most recently, she returned to public view following a freakish chain of deaths: her husband Fred and her brother Todd (within a month of each other); her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe; her fellow musician (and one-time member of the Patti Smith Group) Richard Sohl. It's a story so rife with myth that one can forgive the almost embarrassing flood of publicity that's accompanied her comeback and the release of her new record, Gone Again.
It's not a record that yields to casual listening: As many have noted, it's a set of songs about death and loss, mourning and coping, a post-punk kaddish. But then, the body count has always been pretty high in Smith's work. On Horses, there was the lover's "sweet suicide" of "Redondo Beach," the rape/murder in "Land," "Elegie"'s lament for departed friends, and in "Birdland," a son's harrowing grief over his father's passing ("He fell on his knees/Looked up/And cried out/'NOOOOOOO, DADDY/ NO, DON'T LEAVE ME HERE ALONE/ TAKE ME UP...'"). Death, as the ultimate form of the transcendence her art aspired to, was always close at hand for Smith.
And so it is now, on Gone Again. And though the metaphor bears more of the weight of history, there's also a lightness and resiliency to the music; much of it has a folksy, almost traditional feel. "Dead to the World" is a tale of a man's ghost who visits the song's narrator regularly, while "Ravens" is a simple poem about life's brevity; both have waltz tempos and acoustic country-folk arrangements, and both use phrasing that can verge on the Elizabethan. Even the heavier songs find their graces. Amid the cold swirl of feedback on "About a Boy" (written in response to Kurt Cobain's suicide), there is the warm intimacy of her phrasing, at points reduced to a maternal whisper or less--the intake of air, or the spare sound of her wetting her lips.
There's also an acceptance, as there is throughout the record, of death as a stage of life. "From a chaos/raging sweet/from the deep/and dismal street/toward another/kind of peace/toward the great/emptiness," she sings dramatically, not lamenting so much as testifying. And on "Beneath the Southern Cross," she longs to take the journey herself. "Oh to be/not anyone/gone," she sings, "this maze of being." It's then that, by way of articulating and summing up the problem, she carefully shapes the word "skin"--a small moment that says everything about her power as a singer, even if you don't hear the echo of Horses' "Break it Up." On the latter (to me one of Smith's defining moments) she rages at her corporality while guitarist Tom Verlaine tries to lift her to the heavens: "I tore off my clothes/I danced off my shoes/I ripped my skin open/and then I broke through." Here, Smith is 20 years older, as is Verlaine, and their raging has given way to openness. Smith sings intensely, but gently, while Verlaine spins quiet little ecstasies behind her like some boho Zen master. "Cross over boy, cross over," she offers at the song's end, encouraging someone on their travels with what seems an implicit promise to join them later.