woman as warrior and mystic

[from "Woman As Warrior," by Michael Bracewell, The Guardian (weekend supplement), June 22, 1996]

Patti Smith was the high priestess of punk, an outlaw with God on her mind, who re-invented the role of women in rock. That was 20 years ago. Now, a 50-year-old widow with two children, she's found her voice again.

Patti Smith's return to the British stage after a gap of 18 years bore the comic timing of Tommy Cooper. Having struggled to find the gap in the backdrop curtain that would deliver her face-to-face with the 200-strong audience crammed into a smallish room in the Serpentine Gallery in London, she took a half-step backwards, peered suspiciously at the rows of expectant faces, and demanded, in the tones of a crotchety suburbanite who has found a gang of strangers helping themselves to drinks in her front room, "Who the hell are you?" And, given that it has been 18 years with no hit records and no one-off appearances, we could have been forgiven for asking her the same question. That we didn't, of course, is testament to the fact that Patti Smith is still considered to be one of the most radical writers and performers to emerge from rock and become a leading figure in the much broader arena of contemporary culture. Historically, she embodies the second wave of New York's pop avant garde: the punk scene of the early Seventies, based around CBGBs, that took over the underground after Warhol had been forced to close the doors of his Factory. This was a world where art, poetry and music were all plugged into the same circuit, creating a fledgling society that would produce, under the inspiration of the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, smart young groups such as Richard Hell And The Voidoids Tom Verlaine's Television, Alan Vega's Suicide and, foremost, the Patti Smith Group.

Regarding her role in that much-mythologised era, Smith wrote in her dedication "To The Reader" in her Early Work 1970-1979: "

The Seventies. When I think of them now I think of one great film in which I played a part. A bit part. But a part nonetheless that I shall never play again.

But Smith's "bit part," fronting the Patti Smith Group, was more of a starring role. Her one hit single, "Because The Night" (1978), has been largely eclipsed by the enduring respect, closer to reverence, for her first three albums: Horses (1975), Radio Ethiopia (1976) and Easter (1979). In addition to this, she has published four collections of her poetry, and started work on a novel. She retired from performing, although not from writing, in 1979. Now, 50 years old, the mother of two children, and widowed last year, after 15 years of marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith of the seminal rock group the MC5, Patti Smith has a biography that contains all of the tragedy and romance that marks out a bohemian legend. She's been described as a visionary and an iconoclast, but she has no interest in playing the high priestess of punk rock -- which was a role she never really wanted in the first place. Rather, she is a realist, intent on dismantling the myths that surround her and replacing them with a less heated assessment of her worth and presence as a primarily literary figure.

Fitting people into a formula is just another act of jerking off, but I can't say I don't find it interesting. I used to be a lot more rebellious about all that stuff. If you'd asked me about it in the past, I'd have said it was all bullshit, but one thing I learned in the Eighties, mostly through the breadth, compassion and intelligence of my late husband, was how to appreciate, even with humour, all the different ways people conceive, translate or digest things. And so I guess it's all interesting, it's all good -- it all keeps the planet going. But I have to tell you, some girl sent me her doctoral thesis, relating my work to Rimbaud, and I didn't understand a word of what she was talking about. I was honoured that she'd spent all that time analysing and considering my work, and even considering it next to the work of someone I greatly admire -- but it's not really my beat. It's just great that people keep on pursuing things. I mean, I'd rather see someone write a worthless, 900-page dissertation on CBGBs than see them take their own life. Then again . . . I might want to shoot him after he wrote it.

With her high cheekbones, her greying, Indian-plaited hair, and her severe, angular beauty, Smith can make her features and her stature convey rustic humility or formidable strength from one moment to the next. Her androgynous glamour is entirely uncontrived, with a tribal elegance that confounds fashion and politics. Dressed in a ripped jacket, combat trousers and loosely laced boots, she could have walked off a Paris catwalk -- or across a ploughed field. She appears to be neither of the country nor of the city, and her voice, too, drifts between hillbilly whimsy and tough, New York street talk. Her roots are suburban, but only in as much as suburbia was a transit camp for her questioning and rebellious spirit.

I was moved from Chicago to Philadelphia when I was about three or four years old, and then to southern New Jersey when I was about nine or ten. I wasn't really raised so much in the suburbs as in a fairly rural community -- a sort of lower-class rural suburbia. Even though I felt very alienated there, I don't really feel that people who have a certain calling will feel any less alien anywhere else. I don't think it's the suburbs' fault, or the square dance community's fault, or the farm community's fault -- I just think that certain people are born with a very specific calling. It could be that their sexual preference is away from the mainstream; it could be that, whether scientifically or artistically, they have a calling. Albert Einstein never fitted in wherever he was, and Mother Teresa didn't fit in where she was. I don't think you can blame your surroundings. It's more that some of us are born with a certain burning and we have to live with it, nourish it, and produce work and then be grateful for it.

I think that the things that produce poets, that internal thing that produced Genet, or Artaud, or Michelangelo -- and I'm not comparing myself to those people, of course -- has more to do with God and less to do with the suburbs. I think we have to be grateful to the middle classes and the suburbs for keeping the planet going, and we can't blame them for producing a bunch of crazy alienated artists. I think God does that; I don't think the suburbs does it. There. Ain't I brilliant? Well, not brilliant. Just fairly intelligent.

Smith's mother was a Jehovah's Witness, and her father a non-believer. Herein, perhaps, lies the basic pattern of conflicting influences that prompt creative activity. And, for a child with a highly developed imagination, being brought up in more or less the middle of nowhere, a heightened awareness of God was bound to stir a powerful ingredient into the chemistry of her formative years. The distant horizons of the country suburb and its community would make for a world in which the local became universal, and the interior world of the child's thoughts and fantasies would achieve a vivid colouring that linked consciousness to conscience. And God, in whatever sense one might like to conceive of a higher power, has played and still plays a vital part -- arguably the most important part -- in Smith's life and work.

I think that I was really lucky in my parents to be offered those totally opposed poles. My mother taught me to pray when I was, like, two-and-a-half years old, and it expanded my world totally. It was the greatest gift she could ever have given me. It was the idea that no matter how bored you may be, you can still go to bed early and you can pray - which means that you can talk to the Ultimate Place all you want: tell your troubles, ask for stuff, and receive. And then I was raised a Jehovah's Witness. It's an extremely disciplined faith. They have their own philosophies and their own dogma, which I don't fully agree with, but that's the beauty of that particular religion.

My father wasn't necessarily an atheist, but between him and my mother there was a lot of expansive territory, and so the idea of God was constantly being discussed in our household. And so it was a very stimulating household. And now my father's a Jehovah's Witness! He's nearly 80 years old, he explored nearly every arena, and he's wound up agreeing with my mother!

Within the mythology of Patti Smith, it has often been said that she had hallucinations, whose form and residue enabled the stream-of-consciousness Babel that has marked her performances and writings. And, opened to the written and spoken word, Smith's adolescence took a classic literary turn in her discovery of Rimbaud, the 19th-century French poet, as both a vagabond writer with a violently heightened sense of beauty and an icon of romantic rebellion. Indeed, if a strong awareness of God was to inform her vision of the world, then Rimbaud was to be her muse, inspiring such later lines as "Rock 'n' Rimbaud" (the title Smith gave her performance with guitarist Lenny Kaye at Le Jardin in 1973) and the oft-quoted "Go Rimbaud Now Go Johnny Go" on the album Horses. But Smith makes no claims to early profundity or intellectual precocity in her teenage love affair with the great French poet; rather, it was a crush that turned into a creative marriage.

When I was 16, I really wanted a boyfriend. And I didn't like the way the boys looked in the neighbourhood: they didn't really appeal to me. And so then I found a copy of Illuminations and he was on the cover and he was just my kind of guy. So I really got the book because I looked at him and it was love at first sight. I opened it up and I read it, and I have to admit that I couldn't really comprehend or decode what he wrote. But my instinct and whatever ability I have to feel knew that the writing was beautiful. Even in translation, I was seduced by the language.

And, you know, I really think that great art is seductive on various levels. You don't have to be able to understand it; I mean, if you're touched by it or you feel any kind of cerebral response, it's done its work. I couldn't tell you what Pollock meant in 'Blue Poles' -- it's not necessary. I don't really know what Bob Dylan was talking about in 'Desolation Row,' but it doesn't really matter. I'm not an analysing type. But an artist's gifts have nothing to do with external factors like drugs or alcohol or anything like that. You can have a great night or a weird night, or some kind of experience through drugs or alcohol, and you can write about it -- but it ain't going to make you nuthin' but a physical wreck.

Having majored in art at Deptford High, Smith was offered a partial scholarship to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Her parents were unable to make up the shortfall in the fees, so she went off to the Glassboro State Teachers College to study to become an art teacher. It was here, according to the legend, that she found a tutor called Paul Flick who instilled in her (or authorised, with the benign superiority of a trusted teacher) the deeper Rimbaudian values of the relationship between outcasts, criminals and artists. Working through her vacations at a factory, prior to dropping out from Glassboro, Smith was faced with the choice -- emphasised by the brutal cul-de-sac of local employment -- of either following in Rimbaud's footsteps as a vagrant poet or accepting the tyranny of minimum-wage work. Her experiences in the factory gave rise to "Piss Factory," one of her first mature pieces of writing.

Written in 1970, and later recorded as a B-side, "Piss Factory," with its powerful opening line, "Sixteen and time to pay off, I got this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe", was both a cri de coeur and a de profundis; it drew its strength from social realism as opposed to hallucinations, and empowered its language with local vernacular as opposed to romantic poetry.

'Piss Factory' was written in reaction . . . Where I was brought up in South Jersey, there wasn't much work. In terms of getting a job, you either worked at the glass factory or you went to this other factory -- that I wound up in -- where you made mattresses or children's buggies. It was non-union, so you had really low pay; the conditions were terrible and, it was, so I perceived, a really rotten way to live. But most of the people who worked in this factory had worked there all their lives. I only worked there for two summers, but in that small glimpse I had of what some people considered a life, it was a real prison. I was at a time in my life when there was really no way out: my parents had no money, and while I'm not speaking against the local community, it wasn't a very culturally developed area. People were happy just to have this crappy job and live under the worst conditions -- and that probably produced the most rebellion in me.

But in 'Piss Factory' I wasn't trying to represent any punk-rock point of view. I was just representing the fact that we all have a choice. I perceived I would rather live on the subways and sleep on the streets of New York and try to find something better to do with my life, than choose living in a cheap little place -- trying to divide my pennies between a little bit of food and a little bit of clothing. Working in this hot, sweaty, shitty factory -- to me it was all a matter of choice and imagination. It felt like a lot of people were happy to be like cattle in the factory, and never rebel against the fact that it was 110 degrees and there were no windows. It was unhealthy, they were being paid minimum wage, they just sort of went along with it. So 'Piss Factory' wasn't anything to do with punk rock. I mean, what is punk rock, anyway? Is it like, I'm writing something just to make a bunch of people with weird hair happy? I wrote that because I was concerned about the common man, and I was trying to remind them they had a choice.

"Piss Factory" closes, prophetically, with the desperate avowal: "I'm gonna get on that train and go to New York and I'm gonna be so bad, I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return never return no never return to burn out in this Piss Factory." Both Lou Reed and Robert Mapplethorpe were children of the suburbs, and "Piss Factory" can be seen as echoing the brittle determination of countless provincial and suburban romantics. Smith's flight from Woodbury, New Jersey, to New York City in the late Sixties, sleeping rough until her Cocteauesque relationship with the young Robert Mapplethorpe, during which they struggled against desperate conditions to realise their respective dreams as poet and photographer, has all of the qualities of a 19th-century novel from the Bildungsroman tradition, in which the young poet comes to the big city and learns about life, love and ambition the hard way. Importantly, as a woman, Patti Smith reversed the Bildungsroman's accepted formula -- that the poet hero was always male. At this point, living between cold lofts and the cheapest hotels in New York, Smith's second great literary passion, for the French criminal, political activist and novelist Jean Genet, began to define her writing and describe her own experience of attempting to write in and about a state of near vagrancy. Genet's writing, like Smith's, was driven by a desire to live in opposition to social orthodoxy, and to confirm an outlaw status through a life of degradation. His criminality, as well as his prose, articulated a deeply moral view of society, in which his homosexuality and his sexual fantasies became parables of personal, artistic and political freedom. As such, he was the perfect patron saint for Mapplethorpe and Smith's artistic union.

I think that we're polarised people, raised to be polarised -- good and evil, life and death. With my earliest writing . . . Well, I aspired. I remember reading Little Women when I was a kid, and the character Jo, she was the rebellious sort, y'know, and she writes in the attic all day instead of cleaning, and that appealed to me. And I did dream of being a writer, but it's a lifetime's work and some people have to work a lot harder. I mean, some people, they have gifts that immediately flower, you have someone like Rimbaud or Genet and they just . . . they find out that they're gifted on Monday and write a masterpiece on Tuesday; but others of us have to really plug away, and I guess I'm one of those.

Genet was obviously a man who was so gifted, and born with a certain calling. We don't know who his father was, we don't know, genetically, where his gifts might have come from; we know very little about his mother, and so we can't trace certain things. So they came from within him, from God, and when I say God I'm not discounting Buddha or Allah or any of 'em. But he was a crappy thief. He wanted to be on the outside of society but he was actually very intelligent and very aristocratic -- I think he was like the son of Proust. He liked to romanticise himself and imagine he was one with the brotherhood of thieves -- but what did he steal? He stole some rare books and some silk to make fancy shirts, and he got caught and got life in prison. And the thing with Genet that tormented him most was that he never really knew where his gifts came from. One day he's writing a letter on this beautiful sheet of paper, and instead of just writing, 'I'm in prison in Spain; wish you were here,' he starts elaborating about the texture of this white paper, and all of a sudden he's really writing, and he realises he knows how to write. I think all artists seem to have a lot of conflicting values. With Genet, a part of him loved luxury and fancy silk shirts; the other was a complete bum.

In the young Robert Mapplethorpe -- then sexually confused and seeking his artistic identity within that sexual confusion -- Smith had found her soul twin, spiritual brother and part-time boyfriend. They supported one another's artistic ambitions, and evolved a relationship that was strong enough to see them through the poverty and squalor of their earliest attempts at forging careers in a city already weighed down with aspirant poets and artists. This year, Smith will publish The Coral Sea -- a sequence of prose poems that chart her love and mourning for Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids in 1989. She is disappointed by the appropriation of some of Mapplethorpe's more explicitly sexual images by lobbyists with specific sexual agendas.

Robert was really a true artist, a pure artist. He had a true artist's calling, and I can say that with some authority since I knew him from when he was 20 and saw the history of his development. If he's being used politically right now, that won't endure -- his work is being perceived in a narrow way. Robert's concern was always with composition and light. That was his pure motivation. Whether it was a picture of a man pissing in another man's mouth, or of a flower, or a portrait, Robert had the same motivation -- he was looking at the composition and the lighting. He always considered all of his work to be of equal merit and strength, no matter what the subject.

When all the controversy happened after Robert died, people often asked me what he would think about it. And I know, knowing Robert the way I did, that if he had a photograph on the wall that offended most people -- of the distended organ of a black man, for instance -- he would say, 'All right, take it down,' and put up an equally offensive photograph of a rose. Because all of his work was interchangeable. He was an artist, not a politician.

When I started writing these sets of prose poems [The Coral Sea], I drew on all of the different things I knew of him as an artist and as a human being. It wasn't hard to write; I was grateful for being able to write it because Robert had a very strong work ethic and our friendship was very work-oriented. So to grieve for him in the form of work was a very blessed experience.

A chance meeting with Lenny Kaye (then a music journalist who worked in a record shop) and the recruitment of Richard "DNV" Sohl gave Smith the basis of a group to support musically her readings and improvisations. In keeping with the informality of the underground, there was no formal decision to start a group, but they did produce the single "Hey Joe" in 1974, backed with "Piss Factory." Smith used "Hey Joe" to retell the story of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and the whole project was funded by Mapplethorpe.

After a stint at CBGBs and a brief mini-tour of California, the basis of the Patti Smith Group returned to New York, where they brought in Ivan Kral and Jay Dee Daugherty. The buzz buzzed and they were offered a deal with Arista, their first album, Horses, being produced by the former viola player of the Velvet Underground, John Cale.

Reviewing Tom Verlaine's group Television in the October 1974 issue of Rock Scene, under the title "Learning To Stand Naked," Smith had written, "In the Sixties we had the Stones, Yardbirds, Love and Velvet Underground. Performers moved by cold images. They didn't hide behind an image, they were the image." Now, with Mapplethorpe's stark, self-assured portrait of her on the cover of Horses, the same could be said of Patti Smith. This cover image was seen to shake rock's perception of gender, and -- as much, almost, as the record -- came to define a super-cool punk androgyny.

People have made a lot of stuff about the Horses cover, but a lot of what we do is bred on innocence. How people interpret it is up to them. I thought of myself as a poet and a performer, and so how did I dress? I didn't have much money; I liked to dress like Baudelaire. I looked at a picture of him and he was dressed, like, with this ribbon or tie and a white shirt. I wasn't thinking that I was going to break any boundaries. I just like dressing like Baudelaire.

And Robert liked taking pictures in natural light, and he had very little equipment then. The Horses cover came from 12 photographs that Robert took. He thought it had dignity, but he was also trying to take a picture of a triangle of light that you can see on the image. He wanted me to look good, of course, but he was a photographer first and foremost, and he was trying to get the best picture of that triangle. Me? I just wanted to look cool. I wasn't trying to do anything. I know people would like to think that we got together to break boundaries of politics and gender, but we didn't really have time for that -- we were really too busy trying to pull enough money together to buy lunch.

The rock industry (as much as any other more conservative industry) had been notoriously sexist throughout the Sixties and Seventies, expecting women to be the passive squaws of patriarchal hippy men, and content in their roles as either "chicks" or "ladies." Smith, light years away from either the West Coast introspection of a singer-songwriter such as Joni Mitchell, or the dirty blues traditionalism of Janis Joplin, reinvented the role of women in rock by bringing a new muscularity and mysticism that was possessed of a confrontational glamour. This was summed up by the rumour that record company executives at Arista were outraged by the visibility of a light hair line above her lip on the cover of Horses, and were doubly outraged by her steadfast refusal to allow the offending facial hair to be air-brushed out. This was a woman as warrior and mystic -- your average marketing man's worst nightmare, when his ideal was the soft or the pornographically sexy.

In this sense, Patti Smith's rebellion through honesty -- in terms of denying the male control of her body as an image -- resembled the bravery of the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, whom Mapplethorpe also photographed extensively, and who revolutionised the world of bodybuilding by kicking off the high-heeled shoes that women competitors in bodybuilding had always been made to wear to leaven their "unfemininity".

That collaboration between Lisa Lyon and Robert was brilliant. It was kind of different to how I worked with Robert. I wasn't a very generous model, and our photographs were based on a different kind of trust. I wouldn't dress up for him; I wouldn't lie naked on a rock, covered with clay, like Lisa Lyon did. We took very direct photographs, almost completely based on friendship. And the collaboration between Robert and Lisa was about a different thing: him as an artist and her as a bodybuilder, and that being her art. Being comfortable displaying her body, she was like clay for him, dressing up in veils or fancy hats.

Smith's particular brand of punk rock was a form of mystical theatre in which, as she famously put it, "Three-chord rock merged with the power of the word." While the Patti Smith Group could play the fastest, most violent form of white-noise speed punk doing the rounds in 1977, Smith's performances ranged from covering The Who's "My Generation" to virtually speaking in tongues -- thus mutating the extremes of her religious upbringing to a kind of punk shamanism. Her sexual ambiguity -- singing Van Morrison's "Gloria" from the point of view of the predatory male, or describing a suicide on the lesbian beach at Redondo -- was always secondary to her intense romanticism as a poet. Her most impassioned monologues across the group's "field of sound" -- captured on Radio Ethiopia and later Easter -- resembled a one-way shouting match with God. She used the language of ecstatic religion within the theatre of rock 'n' roll, crunching visions of teenage rebellion into snarled prayers, or cooing accounts of spiritual communion through a cast of misfits and outlaws. This was closer to Genet than Generation X.

Pitched between bearing witness to a living God and proclaiming her violent apostasy, Smith's records and performances can be seen as a struggle with the faith she'd learned as a child -- an acting out of the "expansive territory" between her Christian mother and her doubting father. As the American conceptualist and critic Dan Graham was to write of her in 1979, in his essay "Punk: Political Pop" for the Southern California Art Journal: "She speculated on a new definition of 'female', redefining women's subservient position in rock. Variously, she projected herself as lesbian, androgyne, martyr, priestess, female God."

On the night of January 26, 1977, Patti Smith fell 12 feet from the stage during a performance in Tampa, Florida, cracking two vertebrae in her neck. In Clinton Heylin's book From The Velvets To The Voidoids, she is quoted as describing her fall (and the word becomes a pun on its Christian usage):

I was doing my most intense number, 'Ain't It Strange,' a song where I directly challenge God to talk to me in some way. It's after a part where I spin like a dervish and I say 'Hand of God I feel the finger, Hand of God I start to whirl, Hand of God I don't get dizzy. Hand of God I do not fall now.' But I fell . . .

For a woman whose first album had begun with the line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine", it seemed as though Patti Smith had finally got her answer from God. The fall marked the beginning of her retirement from rock, and in June 1980, at a final performance in Detroit's Masonic Temple, she bid her adieu by reading Chapter 25 of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which deals with Christ's resurrection. And, even if one dismisses Dan Graham's esoteric line that Patti Smith combines the trance-like communing with God that was advocated by Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker movement, with the evangelical possession at work in Jerry Lee Lewis, her role in punk rock is a long way from the English experience of the Sex Pistols.

I don't know if I'm real conscious of what I'm doing when I'm doing it. Take a song like our Rock 'N' Roll Nigger, for instance. Consciously, I was trying to give a new meaning to an old word whose meaning had become unacceptable. It's like the word 'punk'. When I was a small girl, 'punk' was a very negative term. If you called someone a punk it meant that they were stupid, or a jerk. Then, in America at least, in the Seventies, punk translated into something very intelligent and very philosophical. I'm not talking about the trappings and the clothing, but the actual meaning of the word. Whoever invented the punk movement -- which certainly wasn't myself -- shifted the old meaning.

I remember quite clearly, in 1977, when I had fractured my neck and was out of action for a while, some young people from CBGBs dropped by with a magazine to show to me. They'd put me on the cover as their get-well present to me, and the magazine was called Punk. And I said, 'What d'you want to call a magazine "Punk" for? It's such a stupid word -- it means like an asshole.' And they said, 'No, no, no, it's changed.' And that's what I was trying to do with the word 'nigger' -- to turn it into a label you had to earn, like a positive badge.

I thought the Sex Pistols were great dressers who had great energy but were really spoiled kids. I liked them, though. When things look pretty fucked-up around you, which they do, it's the young people that really get it. They look around and see a world full of shit, full of war, full of materialism and pollution. But I think that their next duty is to do something positive about it -- to see what they can change. They have to make their complaints, spit on it all and transform it into something positive. And I don't know if the Sex Pistols have transformed anything into anything positive.

In the Eighties, happily married to Fred "Sonic" Smith and raising her children in a suburb of Detroit, Smith continued to write, but withdrew almost completely from the limelight. She released an album, Dream Of Life, in 1988, but most of her creative energy was spent on preparing her Early Work and Woolgathering collections of poetry for publication. For the best part of a decade, she enjoyed a comparatively quiet and private life, until a rash of harrowing bereavements took away her best friend Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd and her beloved husband Fred.

Fred died of heart failure on November 4, 1994, having co-written much of the new album, Gone Again, and now Patti Smith is having to adjust to what amounts to a new life -- artistically, spiritually and as a single mother with two children.

I am definitely on another plane, but I don't know how much of that can be attributed to mysticism, or even intelligence. A lot of it's to do with grief. So part of my elevation, if it is an elevation, is to do with that. I think of my new songs as gifts from Fred -- his last gifts to me. When he died, my abilities magnified through him. At this point in my life, I'm trying to rediscover who I might be. I'd been a wife for 15 years, and my husband and I were very entwined; a lot of who I perceived myself to be was an extension of him.

And now he's gone. He's with me spiritually but I'm here on physical earth, and it's been a long time since I talked about myself. When I was younger I used to either joke around with journalists or really try to articulate my presumptuous philosophies. But now it's different; I'm not as fascinated with myself as I was then. I'm very proud of my new record, and I wouldn't put it out unless I was. The last thing I want to do is inflict a piece of mediocre art on the planet. But I've also, as a single mother of two children, got practical reasons I've never had to consider before. I still have a part to play in rock 'n' roll, and I'll do that, but I'd love to write a book that people would read and say was good.

Gone Again, and Smith's return to performing, show a woman who is all of the things that her legend claims -- almost despite herself. The myth remains intact. She is a transmitter, a shaman and an artist with a violent calling. And she's 50 years old. Watching her again after 15 years, there is no sense that this is simply another professional pension plan. Rather, she is bound to a spiritual path that gives her no choice but to continue her conversation with God. Less heated, perhaps, but still with some business to settle.

It's my romance with the New Testament. Who was Jesus out to get? The thieves and the whores. He was looking to get the lowest of the low; he was looking to help the lepers to pray for themselves. They didn't need to go to these fancy scribes and Pharisees, and, like, bring a lamb or a gold shekel and say, 'Will you say a prayer for me?' He was saying, 'If you want to talk to God, you can talk for free: mention my name -- you're in.' And, of course, I'm not saying I have that directive, but I was really looking to inspire a cast of people -- and that cast was the miscast.

And there's a lot of people who feel alone, and I know how that feels. I was like the joke at school; I was real skinny, people made fun of me all the time. I didn't have nice clothes. But I learned to turn that around, because I had one thing that those other kids didn't have, and that was a pretty good self-concept. Because my parents had raised me how to feel. And, if you feel, that can be real painful. But don't crawl into a hole. Don't suppress it.

Patti Smith's new album, Gone Again, is released on Arista on July 1. Patti Smith & Friends will be performing at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow on August 5; Labbat's Apollo, Manchester, August 6; and Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, August 7 and 8.

Copyright © Michael Bracewell 1996

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