los angeles reader review of gone again

[from "Touched with Divine Fire: Patti Smith's Elegiac Feelings American," by Chris Morris, Los Angeles Reader, June 14, 1996]
death comes driving
death comes creeping
death comes
I can't do nothing
death goes
there must be something
that remains
         —Patti Smith, "A Fire of Unknown Origin"

why must not death be redefined
         —Patti Smith, "Dancing Barefoot"

The things that remain after death are memories and survivors. On Gone Again (Arista), due to arrive in stores Tuesday, Patti Smith comes to terms, in her uniquely passionate yet straightforward way, with a multitude of mortalities, and in the process she creates her most profoundly affecting and stringently crafted record to date.

In the seventies, Smith styled herself as rock 'n' roll Poet, and broke new artistic ground amid the punk ferment of the day. Records like her 1974 single "Hey Joe" and "Piss Factory," released on her lover/mentor Robert Mapplethorpe's Mer label, and her 1975 debut album, Horses, gave one of the truest visions of a fusion between free verse and left-wing rock. Hearing them today still produces the shock of the new in me.

By 1979, after four albums, Smith had settled comfortably into her punk priestess role; at that juncture, she exited the scene to marry ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, raise a family, and tend her Michigan garden. In 1988, Smith returned briefly with Dream of Life, a somewhat vague and muddled collaboration with her husband; the album's sloganeering single "People Have the Power" remains its most memorable track.

Smith's present renaissance—which has included a series of East Coast dates with Bob Dylan and some devoutly received L.A. dates at the Wiltern Theater and the Roxy in March—comes after a period in which she suffered a series of bereavements. Both her husband and her brother Todd died of heart attacks in quick succession last year. Other important figures in her life also passed: Her original keyboardist Richard "DNV" Sohl in 1990, Mapplethorpe in 1989.

These deaths and others are at the core of Gone Again. In terms of its subject matter, the record is not unprecedented: The death of songwriter Doc Pomus was one motivating factor behind Lou Reed's indelible 1992 album Magic and Loss, while the murder of John Lennon resulted in Yoko Ono's powerful 1981 single "Walking on Thin Ice" and album Season of Glass. All those works are unforgettable and largely bereft of sentiment; Smith's may be even finer and more poignant. It reminds me of nothing so much as beat poet Gregory Corso's farewell to Jack Kerouac, "Elegiac Feelings American": Full of feeling, it never succumbs for an instant to maudlin emotion.

For the album, Smith surrounded herself with old familiars and some new collaborators. Guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty of the Patti Smith Group are here, as is Tom Verlaine, who accompanied Smith at her readings in the early days of the CBGB scene, when Television ruled the roost. John Cale, who produced Horses, contributes organ on one track. Among the newcomers are Tony Shanahan, who played bass for Smith's recent tour dates; guitarist-songwriter Oliver Ray, who cowrote a tune with her for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack; and keyboardist Luis Resto.

There's a lot of instrumental firepower there, but the sound of the album is light, in keeping with the pared-down simplicity of the writing. Most of Gone Again's songs ride a handful of chords, yet there's a lot of melodic beauty. Smith herself has never sung quite so adeptly; rather than oversinging, as she did on her more exclamatory songs of the seventies, she's largely settled into a luminous croon (punctuated, still, by some trademark whoops and croaks); on "About a Boy," her eight-minute farewell to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, she caresses her words like a jazz singer.

In truth, some rock 'n' rollers reared on Smith's early records might find little to spark them here. Only a few numbers on the set can be called "rock songs": the leadoff title song (an eerily prophetic tune cowritten by Patti and Fred), the rifling "Summer Cannibals," and a staggering cover of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger." Most of the songs are acoustic-based, downright pretty, and of them utilize other non-electric instruments—fiddle, cello, dulcimer, mandolin, even musical saw and accordion. (One may see here the influence of Patti's newfound friend Michael Stipe, who used much of this instrumentation on R.E.M.'s Out of Time and Automatic for the People).

The subdued, folkish atmosphere—marshaled in the studio, appropriately by Daniel Lanois's frequent collaborator Malcolm Burn (with coproducer Lenny Kaye)—is reflective of the preponderance of lyrics about grief, loss, and mortality. Death is everywhere here: in elegies to Cobain and (peace to our Ms. Nichols) Jerry Garcia, on "Dead to World"; in two songs for Sonic, the remembrance "My Madrigal" and the rainy-day goodbye of "Farewell Reel"; in the more encompassing meditations of "Wing" and "Ravens" (its sublime repeated couplet "Time bid and make us rise/Make ravens of all"). This is wonderful stuff—stately and never for an instant mawkish or mewling, and touched with divine fire. Death is a subject that too often makes idiots out of artists, but this coolly considered yet impactful song cycle has brought the most disciplined side of Smith's art.

There were times in the seventies—in the excesses of "Radio Ethiopia," or the overstated bohoism of her live shows—that Patti Smith wore her poet's laurels awkwardly. On Gone Again, she looks deeply into her riven heart, finds that death may be in fact redefined, and fashions her finest music to date. She has an aiding understanding of the process: "An artist," she wrote in the introduction to Early Work 1970-1979, "wears his work in place of wounds."

Copyright © Chris Morris 1996

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