NEW YORK Patti Smith, one of rock's great improvisational lyricists, was having a problem in the studio.
Guitarist Lenny Kaye had written a song over which she'd intended to tell the story of the American Indians at the Battle of Wounded Knee. But every time she stepped to the microphone, she was overcome by visions of slavery.
"I kept getting imagery: photographs, photographs of these faces," she said recently in a Soho, New York, coffeehouse, with a glass of mint-infused water on the table in front of her. "And feet. I'd look down at my shoes, my boots, and I kept seeing naked feet with chains around them. This isn't hallucinations from drugs or anything. These are straightforward, during-the-work-process things that happened to me. So I surrendered and let these things come into me."
Thus Smith, whose new album, Gung Ho, arrives in stores Tuesday (March 21), came to write "Strange Messengers" (RealAudio excerpt) from the vantage of a Colonial-era slave.
But the visions continued, she said. In fact, on the day the band recorded the track, they weren't visions at all. Smith said she was overwhelmed by the spirit of a modern black woman. The closest word Smith could find to describe how she felt was "channeling," but that's not quite accurate. Her friend, late Beat author William Burroughs, described the feeling as a shamanistic quality, she said.
"Within the improvisation, I felt filled, literally filled, by someone else," Smith, 53, said, her eyes locked on her interviewer. "So much so that my voice changed. My voice became very, very powerful. And it just went on a rant about crack and things like that. I could see her: a bigger woman, bigger than me. A hefty woman, even with a pocketbook. A church woman, really angry, speaking to the young people."
A rant is exactly what her vocal turned into, and it's the one moment of genuine fury on what is largely an album about devotion to our common humanity. "I burned, I swung, I toiled, for you and your children," she says in the song, and you can practically see her face twisting with sorrow and scorn. "Smoking crack! Crack! That's how you, that's how you repay your ancestors. All those dreams go up in your pipe. Up in smoke. We will be heard!"
Ultimately, it was that last line that persuaded Smith to keep the song on the album, despite her reservations about the judgmental perspective she assumes in the song. Whoever was filling her, she said, demanded to have her say.
'Third Album Is Always The Charm'
Going by the adoring attitude of the audience that attended Smith's concert on Friday at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, her fans are eager for anything she's ready to dish out to them.
Along with bands such as Television and Talking Heads, Smith helped invent the New York punk and new-wave scene in the 1970s. Songs such as her poetry-laden cover of Them's "Gloria," the supercharged "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" and the passionate "Dancing Barefoot" have become part of the art-punk canon.
With Gung Ho, she and her band Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty (drums), Oliver Ray (guitar) and Tony Shanahan (bass) offer their third disc since Smith returned to the public eye after a 15-year sabbatical in the 1980s and early '90s.
"To me, the third album is always the charm, because it's the one where you're through a certain growing pain and you can confront your music as the music it is, without trying to spin it one way or another," Kaye, 53, said recently from his New York home. "We're not trying to be more of a rock band or less of a rock band. We actually didn't have that much of an agenda going into the record."
Spiritual Tour Guide
While its predecessors, Gone Again (1996) and Peace and Noise (1997), reveled in their scuffed-up edges, Gung Ho is a more polished and intricate work. Smith visits current affairs, notably mentioning last year's World Trade Organization riots on "Glitter in Their Eyes" (RealAudio excerpt), but the album is peopled mostly by historical or timeless figures. "Libbie's Song" was inspired by General Custer's widow, while the 11-minute, semi-improvised title track (RealAudio excerpt) revolves around Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
But in the album's quest for a societal evolution toward love, Smith is not willing to ignore the problems in her midst, be they school shootings, spiritual loss or environmental destruction. We are not fine, she said, simply because everyone today has a credit card.
In the album-opening "One Voice," she calls on us all to let our hearts guide us as we speak for ourselves, simply as humans, undistracted by the modern world. When that happens, she predicts we will act for others, and "conscience breathes a sigh of relief."
"I think most people are innately good," she said. "And when we do good work, when we take ourselves out of our daily grind, our self concerns, and do something for someone else, it is like we breathe a sigh of relief, because that's pretty much why we're here. We are here to love one another. We are a brotherhood, we are all humankind."