Patti Smith is fortunate indeed. She found her calling early (enough) in life and spent the rest of it (until today, at least) affirming and reaffirming that calling. Patti Smith is a poet first and foremost. She is a poet in the sense that Jim Morrison was a poet. And the times were kind to them -- they used rock 'n' roll to express their poetry.
In Gone Again, three deaths are being celebrated -- Patti's husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith (of MC5 fame); her brother, Todd; and her soulmate, artist Robert Mapplethorpe. God knows how things would have turned out in lesser hands. But not in Smith's. It is her spirituality that guides the album, which makes Gone Again highly personal and a minor classic in her body of work.
The opening and title track could be read several ways. It is, at once, an eulogy for Fred, who is painted as a Native American warrior who has seized the sky and gone again. There is, at its heart, a certain pain that here was someone who died at the prime of his life. There is a hint that the warrior's greatness was never recognised and, worse, there is a sense of betrayal -- "he turned his back and his own people shot him/and he fell on his knees."
Buoyed by some wickedly sparkling guitar from Tom Verlaine, "Beneath The Southern Cross" continues the mourning process but Patti is no grieving widow. She doesn't live in a cloistered world (even if she was away from public scrutiny for much of the '80s) and presides over a regretful wake for Kurt Cobain in "About A Boy."
One doubts if Patti condones the taking of one's life but she shows that she appreciates the pressures and stress Cobain could have felt -- he is now "beyond it all" -- and all she feels is not reproach but regret and sympathy: "From a chaos raging sweet/from the deep and dismal street/toward another kind of peace/toward the great emptiness."
If Patti were Yoko Ono, the Irish-sounding "My Madrigal" would have been full of primal screams and endless shrieks. Even Patti of 10-years-ago might have gone down that route. Here, she is restrained and the motionless night's wake turns into a mournful vigil under a torment of love and friendship lost.
With "My Madrigal," Patti closes the chapter on her public mourning. The next song and first single, "Summer Cannibals," is an anomaly of sorts. It certainly is catchy and breezy (though that alone is not alien to Patti who has her share of rip-roaring songs). But the intent will raise a couple of eyebrows, especially those from Georgia (a dig at the R.E.M. folks?).
Firstly, there is a notion of cannibals feasting on her fame and notoriety. (So, cannibals can also be associated with death!) And, to make matters more intriguing, Patti tries to vamp(ire) it up: "I laid upon the table another piece of meat and I opened up my veins to them and said come on eat." Of course, one can also say that "Summer Cannibals" is directed at those who would be flocking towards Patti (who is currently touted as this summer's hot babe!). If so, what prescience this woman has!
The second half of the album belongs to Patti Smith. Musically, this is where the album sags. There are no standout tracks here but thematically forms a coherent whole. The country-ish "Dead To The World," the nonchalantly moody "Wings," "Ravens," "Fireflies," "Farewell Reel" and even Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" all show how Patti draws strength from her love of those close to her and how they gave her the courage to carry on. These are songs of hope and innate joy. And while the actual partings were undoubtedly bitter, Patti's spirituality continually asks the question -- how are we going to meet again if you don't first go away?
What gives Gone Again an air of distinction (as opposed to being something maudlin) is Patti's refusal to play the pop game. For Patti, death has meaning and there is dignity in death. That dignity crosses over into her songs -- there is no glibness, no smartass retorts. Patti is just too much a wordsmith (and a poet) to let that happen.
But what some fans might question is the music, which seems rooted in the '70s. In the rush to rake Patti over this, critics probably forgot to mention the mandolin, the dulcimer, the musical saw and even Native American chants, all of which form part of Patti's expanding musical palette. (The Native American influences have surfaced as far back as "Ghost Dance," from Patti's 1978 Easter album.)
When Patti first marched under the rock 'n' roll banner in the early '70s, she did it because she felt there was a need to carry on the rock tradition -- Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison had all just died. So be it then if that tradition is mired in '70s rock. (To some extent, Gone Again and the other Patti Smith albums will appeal to anyone into Morrison.)
It would certainly have been a trendsetting effort had Patti worked with the latest crop of production wiz. Gone Again would have been as seminal as Berlin or Magic And Loss. But that's not her purpose. Then again, let's be thankful for little mercies and a little dignity and eloquence, especially in the face of death, where life is not cheap nor a G-funk away.
Note: Stephen Tan is the editor of BigO magazine, a rock monthly
from Singapore. For more details, check out BigO Worldwide at
Copyright © Stephen Tan 1996