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Trisha's Tragedy

Domestic Survivor: Patti Smith has resurfaced from suburbia tempered by personal losses.

Scarred but resilient, Patti Smith returns after years in domestic exile

By Gina Arnold

Patti Smith is that rarest of all beings: a successful poet. She is, in fact, one of the few from the latter part of the century, standing alongside William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, Maya Angelou and a handful of other voices whose facility with language has kept the ailing genre alive in a world of ever-declining literacy and hope.

But like many of her poetic colleagues--Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, for example--at least half of Smith's mystique has always revolved around her lifestyle. Back in her heyday, in the late '70s, one always pictured her angular, odd-looking figure bopping around the Lower East Side of Manhattan, living in a tenement with her childhood friend Robert Mapplethorpe, hanging out at CBGBs, shooting heroin and babbling her babelogue: "In house, I am Moslem. In heart, I am an American artist, and I have no guilt."

Even now, Smith's subsequent escape from New Jersey still resonates with those of us left back in a bleak beige landscape, those of us who live our lives between L-shaped shopping malls and freeways, who took the last few lines of "Piss Factory"--"I'm gonna get on that train and go to New York City ... and I will travel light"--so desperately to heart.

That's one reason I think some of us lost a little faith in Patti Smith when she moved back to Michigan in 1980 with her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, a founding member of the MC5. Disappointment that she went back to earth has dogged one's attitude toward her, not so much for feminist reasons but for cultural ones.

It's almost impossible to picture her in the suburbs of Detroit, raising two children (Jackson, 13, and Jesse, 8), watching television and doing the laundry. To many of those whom Smith moved via her music, her words and her very being, that life is the prison from which we've escaped. When one thought of her life since 1980, it seemed almost as if she had volunteered to go back to jail.

In the past 18 months, Smith has undergone several great tragedies: the death of her husband and of her brother, Todd, as well as the early demise of both Mapplethorpe and her band's keyboardist, Richard Sohl.

Last summer, the newly widowed Smith finally emerged from her Michigan cocoon, making a few live appearances at readings in New York City, then putting together a band and playing on Lollapalooza's second stage at various East Coast dates. Last September, she played a few gigs at clubs on the West Coast (and has just finished a brief swing through Northern California), during which she made many playful allusions to the mundanity of her life in Detroit.

At one of those shows last year, she talked about being on the phone to the washing-machine repairman. At another, she talked about Ren and Stimpy. Most surprising, to me, was a reference she made to a conversation she'd had with her late husband about the garbage disposal, in which she quoted him as calling her "Trisha."

This is clearly Smith's altar ego: Trisha Smith, housewife, mother and part-time poet. We may not have suspected Trisha's existence, but I think we feared her nonetheless. In fact, a premonition of her lurking presence was why I wasn't too excited to see Smith in her first performance here in 17 years. I felt no thrill of anticipation. I couldn't believe she had anything more to tell me about life.

Besides, unlike many people, I'd seen her before: May 4, 1977, at Winterland in San Francisco. My sister dragged me up from Palo Alto, but it all went by in a blur. I remember that Patti sang "You Light Up My Life" and "Because the Night," that she stalked the stage and goofed around and pretended to play guitar, but I was too young to get it. To me, Patti Smith was a frightening apparition, gaunt and dangerous and reeking of drugs and smoke; moreover, she was what suburban 15-year-olds consider ugly.

Later, I tried to read Rimbaud Dead and couldn't. It was too sad, like seeing a dog get flogged. "They cut off his leg. The syphilis oozes," and so on. Essentially, at the time, Smith was way over my head.

It wasn't until I saw her at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach last September that I realized that my whole life had been shaped by early contact with Patti Smith. "Sixteen and time to pay off"; "The boys was in the hallway, drinking a glass of tea"; "A deep disturbing rose ... the warm ironic wind ... this blessed speck, this lone lariat, everything is so damn beautiful." Tears filled my eyes as I realized all how much I'd missed, because Patti sure wasn't lying when she said she hadn't fucked much with the past but she fucked plenty with the future.

That night in San Diego, Patti was a vessel filled with light and purity. She exuded everything good. She twisted the past up in her mouth and spit it back out as a newly living thing, and as she did so, I felt as if there had been this small, glowing grief, deep in the center of her soul, this constant, gnawing conviction, resurfacing time and again, that things could be bigger and better and more dynamic, that everything was just a little bit weak.

Watching Patti speak, I realized that I'd been surrounded by phantoms for the past 15 years. I'd never really seen anything like it--except once, and that guy blew his head off rather than face the present day.

But Patti is braver than poor little Kurt. Although in the past year four of her closest companions, including her husband and her brother, have passed away quite suddenly, last week she told critic Robert Hilburn that "I want people who feel bad or feel that life has dealt them a rough blow. ... I want them to understand that life is still worth living because life is worth living."

In San Diego, Patti sang 10 songs, including Bob Dylan's "Dark Eyes," Jerry Garcia's "Black Peter," Bob Dylan's "Not Fade Away" and a bunch of her own. In L.A., she sang only three numbers. In that less tempestuous atmosphere, I was able to assess her current place in art more sanely.

Like many lyric poets (and, I am told, great physicists), Patti's best work seems to have poured out of her at an early age, burning through life and language and music and the blues, influencing the rhythm and tempo of almost every subsequent song.

But the history of poetry has proven that the process of aging makes one cautious, cynical and sad--attributes that inhibit a medium that requires much recklessness of spirit. What's amazing about Smith is that age has not done this to her.

Although her new material was not as blistering as her old stuff, it had a warmth and a breadth to it that I've seldom heard in any type of music; it had progressed, emotionally, far beyond the work of other rock artists. The best song was an ode to Cobain called "About a Boy." Smith also has a wonderful track on the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, and a new record coming out this month on Arista.

I think it's fair to say that Smith is one of the 20th century's greatest poets, but these days she is a sage rather than a sibyl. After all, for a true poet, the exterior aspect of life ought not to matter; it's the spirit that counts most heavily. What is so moving about Patti Smith now is not so much her use of language, but her transcendent ability to deal with grief and death, and yet to still take heart in life. As an inspiration and role model, she stands alone; at the age of 48, she is a uniquely brave, articulate and necessary female public figure.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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