gone again review in houston chronicle

[from "Reborn from the Ashes of Life: Patti Smith Defies Tragedy in Gone Again, by Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle, June 23, 1996]

**** (four stars = highest rating)

In this oxymoronic era of mainstream alternative and punk poseurs, the real thing is back.

Patti Smith lives again as a rocker. In a twisted way, death has fueled that rebirth.

For most of the past 16 years, Smith has laid low, though her music has continued to influence such current wannabes as Courtney Love.

The poetic punk priestess who unleashed four fierce albums in the '70s withdrew at that decade's end, moving with her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred Smith, from New York to a Detroit suburb.

Burned out by rock, they lived a quiet life, raising two kids. She recorded only one album, 1988's Dream of Life.

But in late 1994, her husband died at age 45, followed a month later by her brother Todd. Both died of heart attacks.

Smith, 49, would not withdraw—she had already done that. Rather, she would seek solace and cathartic comfort in rock'n'roll.

As a result, her losses are our gain. Gone Again is this year's most powerful rock album so far, reinstating Smith as a leader, not just a fondly remembered legend.

Here she leads former band mates and friends such as John Cale and guitarist Lenny Kaye. On two songs partly written by her late husband ("Summer Cannibals" and the anthemic title track), they rock with the vehemence of the good old days.

Yet most of this disc is acoustic. Tunes are laced with folk and gospel flavors, tender melodies are strummed on mandolin, and ballads are set to waltz time.

No matter. Even the sparest numbers can be charged and impassioned.

Ranging from a wail to a whisper, Smith sings intensely expressive songs about her wedding vows (the achingly lovely "My Madrigal"), the decadence of fame (the fervent rocker "Summer Cannibals") and the death of Kurt Cobain (the bluesy psychedelia of "About a Boy").

Such music rides waves of emotions as she rails against life's fragility, then celebrates its preciousness.

Indeed, for all her stark defiance of tragedy, Smith shows serenity here, if not buoyancy. She doesn't just endure life—she learns and grows from it.

She won't tour on this album. She'll do only a few shows, strictly as benefits, and plans to move her family back to New York in the fall.

In the meantime, Smith has published a book of poetry, The Coral Sea (Norton, $18), written as a tribute to a friend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Arista has also reissued her four '70s albums with bonus tracks.

Those who equate quality with sales would find Smith a failure. None of these albums has been certified gold.

But for Smith, commercialism would be an accident. You can't calculate inspiration. You can only strive to do it justice.

Copyright © Bruce Westbook 1996

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