Ten years ago, in June of 1996 when Gone Again was first released, I had just received word from a friend, the terrific short story writer Alison Baker, of the untimely death of a mutual acquaintance. It had been the second such letter in about as many months. “Sorry to send bad news again,” she’d closed. “As we age, you know, this sort of news becomes prevalent. One will come to dread the personal letter.” I’d hoped she was wrong then and I today remain hopeful of the same. I love receiving letters — even if it means suffering the occasional bad news. I’ve yet to reach the age where each morning I scan the obituaries, like a vulture scouting out carrion, looking for familiar names among the grainy black-and-white faces that have gone the way of all flesh. Instead, I prefer to mark my time on this earth by the friends I’ve made, the movies I’ve seen, the books I’ve read, and, perhaps most of all, the songs I’ve heard.
The best rock & roll has always been a kind of musical letter-writing — “song-mail,” if you will. Given rock’s roots and the social significance it has garnered through the decades, this is not an inappropriate view of the music that has documented my generation and perhaps yours. Always meant to do more than merely fill the space between our ears, rock combines words and music and provides a vehicle by which the artist can report in and say, “This is where I am at this point in my life. This is what I think. This is what I want.” Or, like Rutger Hauer’s replicant Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner, making sure his memories aren’t lost like tears in the rain: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…”
It had been eight years since Patti Smith last graced us with a letter from home. Before that, Dream of Life, the album she recorded with her husband, ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, was the first time we’d heard from her since she dropped out of the rock & roll limelight in 1979. She’d moved to Detroit, married the other Smith the following year, and, by all accounts, had happily become a Midwestern mother of two. And, for the rest of the world at least, stopped making music.
Happiness is brief.
It will not stay.
God batters at its sails.
Patti Smith’s Gone Again is a musical letter of the sort that seldom gets released in the musical marketplace, mainly because it concerns itself with the aforementioned “bad news.” Death inhabits the album, raises its impressive lizard-like head throughout, but is held at bay by Smith and her stalwart band of rock & roll argonauts. This may be Smith’s show, but it’s Death’s dance, it’s Death (this time, at least) making her sing. To wit:
- March, 1989: Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom Smith had been lover and muse, dies a very public AIDS-induced death.
- June, 1990: Original Patti Smith Group keyboardist Richard Sohl dies of a heart attack on Long Island. He was 37.
- April, 1994: Fred and Patti Smith weep at the news that Kurt Cobain has committed suicide. Old enough to be the Nirvana leader’s parents, they adored his music.
- November, 1994: Smith’s husband Fred dies of a heart attack.
- December, 1994: A month later, Smith’s beloved brother Todd, in whose face Sid Vicious once smashed a glass, dies of a heart attack.
All things considered, how could Gone Again be about anything but death?
The fine album reunites Smith not only with her two bandmates of old, guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, but also features Television guitar virtuoso Tom Verlaine, ex-Velvet Underground founding member John Cale (who’d produced Smith’s debut album Horses in 1975) on organ, Tony Shanahan on bass, and Smith’s sister Kimberly (immortalized in song on that debut album) on mandolin.
The tone of Gone Again tends more toward the stately than the raucous, though the latter certainly finds its moments. There is a transcendent, mantra-like quality to some of the songs; the overall effect meditative. But within the music’s self-imposed aural constraints a shitstorm brews, blowing in a full-force gale capable of taking out everything in its wake, as in the wash of droning electric guitar that becomes a tidal wave in the Cobain tribute, “About a Boy.”
The title cut is Native American in its rhythms, with Smith coming on like the “crazy and sleepy Comanche” she declared herself to be so many years before in “Babelogue.” “Dead to the World” is a folksy, whimsical, Dylan-influenced death dream, proving that she isn’t blind to the humor inherent in the subject matter she’s grappling with. And, in a nod to Dylan himself, with whom she toured when she returned to the stage in December of 1995, she delivers a ballsy rendition of his angry anthem, “Wicked Messenger.”
But best of all there is “Summer Cannibals,” the album’s first single. With Daugherty’s sinew-snapping drumsticks and Kaye’s guitar lines shooting like spears around her, Smith erases any notion that eight years have passed since we last heard from her. Like a little girl reciting a jaunty, macabre nursery rhyme, she sings:
and I laid upon the table
another piece of meat
and I opened up my veins to them
and said, “come on, eat”
The anger. The joy. The sense of humor, funny and transcendent. Everything about the song, from her oh-so-perfect pronunciation to her guttural, Linda Blair-way of saying eat, makes it one of her best songs ever.
And if, at the time, the album as a whole struck us as something less than we’d hoped for — too subdued or contemplative in spots — perhaps we should have questioned whether it was our own expectations that were out of whack. In Smith’s absence, the value of her musical legacy, especially in light of the overdue artistic and commercial vindication of punk rock, had increased many-fold.
Let’s face it: If Jesus Christ had come down off the cross, JD Salinger had written another book, and Hillary Clinton had come clean about something going on back then called “Whitewater” — it still wouldn’t have been enough. We Americans, like Smith’s own “Summer Cannibals,” are insatiable in our wants.