Smith's Exquisite, Majestic Return

Patti Smith is without a doubt one of the most notable musicians of the

last two decades. Viewed perhaps as the most influential and enigmatic

female musician in rock history, her shadow continues to loom over popular

music. Feminist, poet, personality, Patti Smith was the Bob Dylan of the

'70s punk world, and her latest album threatens to expand her influence;

already, her influence spreads from Madonna to P.J Harvey. Smith was a young

poet who roomed with the photographer Robert Mappelthorpe in the early

1970s. Around the same time, she began publicly reciting her poetry set to

Lenny Kaye's guitar lines; by 1974 she had joined New York's CBGB's scene

(which included The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and Blondie). From the

start, her compositions set her apart: ecstatic, dreamy rants mixed with a

healthy wollop of growls, screeches, and murmurs.

Smith and her group--Lenny Kaye on guitar, Ivan Kral on bass, and Jay Dee Daugherty on

drums--went on to record four albums between 1975 and 1979, virtually all

masterpieces. Horses (1975), Radio Ethiopia (1976),

Easter (1978), and Wave (1979) seemed destined to mark

Smith's musical legacy--in 1980, she settled down with Fred "Sonic"

Smith (formerly of the MC5) in Detroit, and, besides a 1988 collaboration

(Dream of Life) the two Smiths retreated from the musical world.

The last year (during which Smith weathered the death of her husband) has

seen Smith's majestic return to the music world, culminated in the

release of Gone Again.

The album reunites Smith with Daugherty and Kaye, and adds Tony Shenahan (bass) and

Luis Resto (keys) into the mix (and even features former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine

on a couple of tracks) and, I'm happy to say, should join Smith's other work in the

pantheon of Great Rock Albums. While Gone Again deals with loss

(the album is dedicated to Fred Smith and the elegiac "About a Boy" was

written in memory of Kurt Cobain) Smith's new work seems less a piece of

mourning that another great Patti Smith album. Perhaps this is because Smith has always

shied away from conventional rock 'n' roll subject matter into the realm of the mythic and

profane: everything about the Mappelthorpe photo of Smith that graces the cover of

Horses cries out that it is for the ages. The title track from Gone Again,

which opens the album, was written by Patti and Fred together, and starts as a crunching

romp set under Smith's instantly recognizable cries; soon, the song reaches back to

Smith's roots as a poet, as Daugherty beats on his toms as Smith begins to

recite a poem."Gone Again" is neither mournful nor sad, although at times

it can uncomfortable--Smith lays her emotions bare instead of sugarcoating

them in clichés and histrionics.

Many of the songs on the album utilize Smith's best-known and most effective approach,

where she builds poetic narratives to musical climaxes. And, while there are a fair share of

melodically slower songs, such as "Beneath Southern Cross," the album's second

track, Smith, while her band hints at peaks that will never come,

maintains an intensity it is not possible to reach through sheer speed or

volume. "About A Boy," the Cobain tribute, is also both surrealistic and

monumental in the same breath. Since Smith began making appearances in the

music world last summer--first a Central Park performance, then a

Lollapalooza date--it was apparent that the stark beauty that lay at the

center of her work remained intact. By last fall, when Smith opened for Dylan on a series

of dates (she covers Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" on Gone Again) Smith was

performing new work, and it seemed as if this would be one return to the music world that

would not be an embarrassment. That truth is happily confirmed. Gone Again, like

Horses, will sound equally current and alive regardless of when it

is played.

Addressing perennial themes with an exquisite touch, Smith has

never really moved away from her notion of herself as a performing poet;

perhaps this is why Gone Again does not overwhelm the listener with

the mortality that clearly pervades it death gets an appropriately equal

footing with all of the other issues Smith attacks. Her intimate

dissections o f facts of life give Smith's music a quasi-other-worldly

feel: the ability to observe so truthfully and with such passion is not

often a human quality. The songs on Gone Again range from the

anthemic "Summer Cannibals" (also co-written with Fred Smith) to the

country-tinged "Dead to the World," but throughout, Smith's phrasing,

perhaps as unique as Dylans (Smith even pulls off some Dylan-esque dra

wling), shine through. Patti Smith would have been known as one of the

most innovative rock musicians had she never recorded after 1979. With her

return to music, she is poised to become one of most consistently

accurate, seductive, and distinctive voices the genre has ever heard.