philly city paper review of gone again (& the coral sea)

[by a. d. amorosi, Philadelphia City Paper, June 21-27, 1996]

It's so hard to imagine someone's loss as everyone's gain, but in the present tense of Patti Smith—the deaths of her husband Fred, brother Todd and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe—this is very much the case. When I interviewed Smith a few months ago, she talked about her upcoming works with great pride and pleasure: her new CD, Gone Again (Arista), and a book of poems on Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea (W.W. Norton). Both are works that would have never happened with such understated brilliance if all her troubles hadn't.

Replacing raw punk energy with elegiac grace, yelping with sauntering, youthful ebullience with wise, sorrowful worldliness, Smith has transformed her style to suit her personal transformation. On Gone Again, Smith's challenge is to re-establish her cinematic scope—not with the blood bath inherent in "Rock n Roll Nigger" nor the religious torpor of "Gloria," but by letting in colors heretofore unseen. The music is a quirky but billowy layer of sound laid down by such old Smith stalwarts as Lenny Kaye, J.D. Daugherty, John Cale and Tom Verlaine (as well as new ones like Jeff Buckley and Jane Scarpantoni). It's eerily muted subtle rock, meshed with haunting piano and cello élan, that soaks the music in the passion of life and loss.

On the title track Smith is restlessly searching for God as she has before. This time she's found Him in simplicity: "the braid undone, the child born." On "My Madrigal" she finds Him in the vows of marriage. On "About a Boy" she finds Him in the tortured artist Kurt Cobain. Previous to this the lost tortured souls of Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Pasolini and James Joyce have haunted her work like the ghosts that roam through Ibsen. Another tortured soul, photographer Mapplethorpe, is the focus of The Coral Sea, Smith's first newly-released book of poetry in quite some time. Smith and Mapplethorpe's life and friendship together in the 70's was documented in a flashy, somewhat salacious manner in Patricia Morrisroe's recent Mapplethorpe biography—a depiction that saddened Smith because "it lacked the compassion, humor and error of youth." To that end, Smith makes The Coral Sea—a seafaring adventure where the traveler, Passenger M, incorporates love and nature into his work and travels—a dedication to the mythological spirit of Mapplethorpe. Passenger M has dedicated himself from birth to a life of the aesthetic—"his delicate eyes saw with clarity what others did not." Had Mapplethorpe (or Smith for that matter) not burned so brightly, would we be talking about him (or her) or his work now?

The celebration of all that is Smith can also be found in a limited (to 4,000 copies) edition box set of all her previous works: Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Wave, Dream of Life and Gone Again [sic] (all 20-bit digitally enhanced with live tracks, B-sides and rarities). The adventure starts with the box; Gone Again is the calm after the storm...

Copyright © a. d. amorosi 1996

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