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Punk Poet

Patti Smith is brave and sagacious

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 and 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 poets--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 Eastside 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, 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. 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. In September, she played a few gigs at clubs on the West Coast, during which she made many playful allusions to the mundaneness of her life in Detroit.

At one show, 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 alter ego: Trisha Smith, housewife, mother, and part-time poet. We may not have suspected her 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.

It wasn't until I saw her again 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 how much I'd missed her, 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. Despite the slew of personal tragedies she's endured in recent years, 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."

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 Kurt 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, a uniquely brave, articulate, and necessary female public figure.


Patti Smith performs on Wednesday, March 20, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $25. 546-3600.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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