About A Girl

           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.  

           That Patti Smith would address personal tragedy by returning to her fans says a lot about the healing properties of art. But it also feels something like a declaration of family. Indeed, on the first of two nights of her official "comeback" shows at New York City's Irving Plaza, there was quite the reunion vibe in effect, both onstage and off. Many in the capacity crowd had traveled a ways to be there, like the couple from Paris who flew in especially for the show, not to mention myself and my sister (who got her in-laws to watch the kids until her husband got home). And under the spotlight, Smith was surrounded by family. There was longtime bandmate Lenny Kaye (who noted the ring on a chain around his neck was given to him by Smith at their first performance, 25 years earlier), and drummer Jay Dee Daughtery. There was Smith's sister, Kimberly, who accompanied her on mandolin on "Ravens" and even took the stage for a song of her own. Even her 13-year-old son Jackson was there, playing lead guitar behind his mom for a fairly rabid version of Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water."

           Like Smith's body of work (just reissued in a handsome box set, The Patti Smith Masters), the show had its ups and downs. But moments of brilliant intensity seared though its casual programming, drawing a line from her creative beginnings to the here and now. She started with an unaccompanied reading of "Piss Factory," a remarkably prescient piece of autobiography about a kid wanting to break out of a dead-end job and become "a big star" (her first single, it's lamentably missing from the box set). She and her band (which also included young guitarist/collaborator Oliver Ray and old pal Tom Verlaine) moved through songs from various stages of her career--"Dancing Barefoot," "Free Money," "Ghost Dance," "Redondo Beach," and a closing medley of "Horses," "Land of a Thousand Dances," and "Rock & Roll Nigger"--with her voice huge but mobile, searching tenaciously for notes across the scale, while Verlaine sat in the shadows, adding subtle but often breathtaking guitar touches. The sense of time and people passing on was palpable on nearly every song, even on covers; a surprising version of Prince's "When Doves Cry," for instance, hinged on the verse "How could you just leave me standing/Alone in a world that's so cold?"

           But where there might have been a sense of anger or outrage or wild grief, there was instead an air of acceptance, and of making peace with one's ghosts. She ended the show with "Farewell Reel," a song addressed to her late husband in which she assures him she and their children will be fine. "God only knows/we're only given/as much as the heart can endure," she sang near the song's end. Irony? Maybe, maybe not--her even tone betrayed nothing. But it called to my mind a pronouncement from a Faulkner novel which has stayed with me, though I've forgotten its exact source. It's something to the effect that the human heart is forced to endure infinitely more than it was made to endure. Me, I'm with the latter. But we endure it nevertheless.

           After the show, my sister drove me to the friend's apartment where I was staying. (Her place in Jersey was filled to capacity with kids and visiting in-laws.) We talked about how good the show was, and how remarkable Smith's strength and dignity were, unlike so many other performers who try to repackage their youth. She joked about watching Mick Jagger on cable, how he looked like a crazed old rooster. We laughed ourselves breathless.

           Last week I got a card from her. In it she wrote about current struggles, about kids and finances and workloads. She also wrote about drinking beer in her living room and listening to Gone Again, how emotional it was, and about how seeing Patti Smith made her think about things past. "[She] was so much a symbol of my youth," she wrote. "I feel so old... Patti is 49! Well, I guess we're all getting old. At least we're smarter (that is, hopefully) and I for one am happier--most of the time." Reading it, I thought about that "most of the time," and how living with dignity has to do with pledging yourself to it. And as I watch her do that, along with artists and others I've grown up admiring, I find it easier to do the same.

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