penthouse review of dream of life

[from "Sounds," by Vin Scelsa, Penthouse, October 1988]

I feel uncomfortable calling Patti Smith's "Dream of Life" a comeback collection; it can't be a comeback because it sounds like she's never been away.

Come with me back to 1976, the Year of the Punk in New York City. As the nation celebrated its bicentennial, the world of pop music found itself besieged by a new American revolution. From the bohemian tenements of the Bowery and Lower East Side, from avant-garde arty SoHo lofts and middle-class Queens and Jersey, came the passionate guerrilla bands, electric flags and fury unfurled, ready to battle the corporate monster that had sucked the soul from rock 'n' roll. Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie—they encamped at CBGB and Max's Kansas City, and communed with the ghosts of Velvet Underground, the shadows of New York Dolls.

Leading the assault was an unlikely general: a sensual mystic-poet who (at the time) couldn't sing, fronting a band that (at the time) could barely play; a woman who seemingly had more in common with Sam Shepard than Sam the Sham, Jackson Pollock than Michael Jackson; a radical anarchist with a Frank Capra girl-next-door name. Patti Smith. High priestess of new wave; spiritual descendant of Morrison and Hendrix, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Patti Smith. We had never seen anything like her before; she was completely original. Here was a rock 'n' roll woman who didn't come on as a sex object, but whose work was nevertheless drenched in sensuality; who effortlessly moved along planes both sacred and profane. A savage innocent, naive, yet possessed of such strength and conviction that she struck terror as she elicited awe.

I remember when she came on the radio with me over Thanksgiving weekend '76, during one of Harry Chapin's consciousness-raising hungerthons. As she walked into the studio, I nervously suggested that we could talk about anything she wanted, but would she please watch her language ... you know, ummm, not say "fuck" or anything, because we were on live. Then I opened the mikes and Patti said, "If I wanna say fuck on the radio, man, I'll say fuck on the radio! Because this is Radio Ethiopia, man—Power to the people!"

That was Patti. And even though there isn't a single "fuck" on Dream of Life—her first album since retreating from the rock wars in 1980 to marry Fred "Sonic" Smith (of MC5 fame) and raise two kids—that is still Patti, doing precisely what she wants, playing the game by her own carefully defined rules. And she still contends that "People Have the Power" (the LP's first single) "to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools."

At first listen, I felt slightly embarrassed. Can she really believe all that raised-fist, "power to the people" sloganizing? Has time stood still in domestic Detroit? Does she continue to think that wearing her poetic heart on her sleeve will change the world? But as the record took hold, I realized that I was embarrassed for myself—not Patti; embarrassed because I'd allowed some of these dreams we once shared to get lost in the yuppie shuffle; embarrassed the way we are by something that strikes hidden chords. Once again Patti is venturing down paths virtually untraveled. How refreshing it is to witness an artist creating, without regard for fashion or formula. A friend said, "I didn't realize how much I missed her." And how much we need her nurturing vision and spirit.

The eight songs that comprise this comeback collection are by turns sentimental, romantic, challenging, and supplicatory—odes to love and life, struggle and redemption. "Ah the borders of heaven / Are zipped up tight tonight / The abstract streets / The lights like some switched-on Mondrian / Cats like us are obsolete" ("Up There Down There") gives an idea of what her latest writing is like. "I spin from the wheel / nothing at all / Save the need / the need to weave / A silk of souls / that whisper whisper" ("Paths That Cross"). Or this: "In the medieval night / 'Twas love's design / And the sky was open / like a Valentine / All the lacy lights / Where wishes fall / And like Shakespeare's child / I wished on them all" ("Looking for You"—which, if there is any justice in radio land, ought to be as big a hit as her "Because the Night" Springsteen collaboration in 1978).

This is sweet, wonderful writing: strong, moving images set to often quite beautiful accompaniment. Husband Smith and studio whiz Jimmy Iovine have produced a clean, crisp sound. The tracks are full of musical touchstones (the Native American rhythm of "Going Under," the "na na na na" riff in the title song); the melodies are memorable; and the band, including former mates Jay Dee Daugherty and Richard Sohl, is strong and in sync with Patti's vision. And she is singing here with a voice mature and assuring, yet somehow younger, lighter than the one she had ten years ago. Having kids has done wonders for the lady's chops.

Speaking of kids ... the album ends with "The Jackson Song," a gentle lullaby to her five-year-old son, "a little blue dreamer," just like his mom. "May your path be your own / But I'm with you," she tenderly sings; and I'm touched and thrilled to know that Patti Smith is among us again, in all her personae: general and mother, lover and poet, and most of all, dreamer. That she has chosen to share herself now, at decade's end, is cause for celebration. And any time she wants to come on my radio show, she can say whatever she damn well pleases. That's a promise, Patti. Welcome home.

Copyright © Vin Scelsa 1988

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