So now you're wondering what to make of Patti Smith's Dream of Life (Arista). The record ends a nine-year hiatus - the longest ever taken by a major rock artist - but it's less a comeback than the start of something entirely new. If there's any connection to her previous four albums, it's to the disarmingly beautiful songs that she'd sneak in between the outbursts (think of "Ghost Dance" or "Dancing Barefoot"). Dream of Life is guaranteed to challenge your cynicism, beginning with a change-the-world anthem ("People Have the Power"), ending with a prayer for the Smiths' first child ("The Jackson Song"), and covering love, death, politics and spirituality from a hopeful place in between. One may miss the screaming mania of "Rock'n'Roll Nigger" or Radio Ethiopia, but there's no getting around it: Dream of Life is an inspiring piece of work.
"Some people are embarrassed about liking it," she allows. "They don't know what to think, and they get embarrassed to say they really like the 'Jackson Song.' One talks about intensity, but performing that song in the studio was at least as intense an experience as doing 'Rock'n'Roll Nigger' in the past. It's a relative thing. The older records have a lot of high adolescent energy. A lot of it was very sporadic, anarchistic, improvisational. To its credit, and to its vulnerableness, the old music was an expression of the type of people we were as a group. But I never subscribed to that idea of 'No future, no future.' That was never my credo."
One might guess she's found the future she was striving for in the manic years. "As far as finding what you're looking for, artists are always searching. You can have peace within yourself about certain things, but you don't want total peace. Fred [husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, ex-MC5 guitarist] said a little while ago that there are two extremes, mania and peace. That's part of our daily life, and you have to find a balance. But if you want an oversimplification, I feel very strong. I feel healthy, I feel pretty good."
Dressed in basic black, Smith projects tranquility. She's guarded about the details of her home life, but affirms that it's there, it's crucial, it takes precedence over any kind of rock'n'roll lifestyle. The phrase "Fred and I" turns up often in conversation - that's who wrote the songs, that's who made the record, that's who's in for the long haul. Most of all, she emphasizes that the Patti Smith of the Patti Smith Group and the Patti Smith of "Fred and I" are two different animals.
"I don't have a whole lot of time to think about myself ten years ago," she says. "That's not conscious, but nine years have gone by - or 13, be- cause we made Horses in 1975. There have been many changes, a lot of learning. Being a mother, raising children, you develop a lot of new sensitivities - or ones that you already had are heightened. A few people have said, 'You mellowed out,' and I hate that phrase - I don't think that developing in certain areas implies lost strength in others. One doesn't have to be shouting and kicking over amplifiers anymore. That doesn't mean I recant other ways of working. What I did 15 years ago, I did with full heart, in that way Fred and I are no different.
"When I had the group, that's where all my energies went. We weren't entertainers; we had certain missions and I believe our mission was accomplished. It was time for all of us to move on."
She said as much in 1979's Wave, the final Patti Smith Group album. Produced by longtime friend Todd Rundgren, the album reflected a turn inward, away from big rock'n'roll gestures. The opener, "Frederick," was the most straightforward love song she'd written (counting even "Because the Night," written with Bruce Springsteen), and her version of the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock'n'Roll Star" had a "good-riddance-to-all- that" feel. The title, Wave, could be interpreted any number of ways (the title track had her fantasizing a meeting with the Pope by the ocean), but it certainly suggested a wave of farewell.
"I became committed to the life of a parent," she explains. "Maybe some people can have children and tour 50 cities, but that's not right for us. Fred and I have been touring since the '60s, and we've seen all that. Being a celebrity has nothing to do with being an artist, it wasn't important to begin with." Even if she hadn't met Fred Smith, she says, the full-time rock'n'rolling had to go. "It's always been my nature to develop as a human being and as a worker. Plugging away is not the way you develop your craft - doing the same thing and beating yourself over and over. Writing has always been the most important to me."
Patti Smith the writer used to be one of the world's best rock critics. That was in the early '70s, after she'd written a play, "Cowboy Mouth," with Sam Shepard and before she'd put her first band together. Published in early editions of (then Detroit-based) Creem magazine, her work was wild, hyperactive, image-drenched - all the qualities that would show up in her rock lyrics. And she wrote as an insider: Her 1973 review of Todd Rundgren's A Wizard/A True Star was as hallucinatory as the record itself, early pressings of that album included a poetry insert by her.
In 1988, Smith no longer believes in the sacramental power of rock'n'roll. An early single, a live version of the Who's "My Generation," gave the punk movement its first rallying cry: "We created it, let's take it over." If you saw the band on an inspired night, opening with "Privilege" and segueing into "Till Victory," you got a sense of rock as ritual, rock as spiritual force.
"I don't think about those things so much anymore," she says. "There were things I felt strongly about in terms of rock'n'roll, and I think the new guard will feel a lot of those things as strongly or stronger. That doesn't mean my ideas weren't good, it's just not the center of my preoccupation." Did she mourn the death of punk? "Well, you can't say what worked and what didn't, because the planet hasn't ended yet. Change always works, even if it's temporary change. If things aren't happening now, they will be in five years. I know we made a certain difference, we had an effect on people and it was positive. The idea is to create a space for yourself and leave one for the people coming. You want to leave room for other people to work, not to plant a flag and say 'This is mine.'"
So now it's someone else's turn, and the Smiths haven't followed a lot of current music. "I listen to Coltrane, Beethoven. If I listen to the radio, there might be a song I like. I like Michael Jackson, I think 'Man in the Mirror' was a good song, but I don't sit down and listen to him. And I think Madonna's 'Into the Groove' was a good song. But I've actually been more involved in reading and studying film. I could give you hundreds of movies for example, I really love Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and Kurosawa's 'Ran'." So if you ask what I've been listening to, I'd say I'm more into checking out what Godard has been doing."
Keeping that in mind, the Smiths were in no hurry to make a new album. Stacks of songs were written at home, but it wasn't until last year that they thought of entering a studio. Even then, real life took precedence: One friend passed away (memorialized in the song "Paths That Cross"), and the sessions went on hold when their second child, Jesse Paris Smith, was born. The main problem was condensing all the ideas into one set of songs that would represent Patti Smith circa 1988.
'We had written many songs, all kinds of songs. But we wanted there to be a balance, we wanted all the various aspects of our lives and abilities to be represented. The first thing we talked about was who we wanted to record with, and we basically decided on a balance of friends." They kept it down to a small band with no big-time guests; the nucleus is Fred Smith on guitars, two cronies from the old days ~(keyboardist Richard Sohl and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty), and a revolving team of bassists, including Utopia's Kasim Sultan.
Fred Smith, you'll recall, was a mean little guitar-slinger in his time. The MC5 was a hardcore punk group before such things were supposed to exist. Its first album, Kick Out the jams, was 1969's last word on crudity, and it's still considered hip to cover songs from the MC5's best studio album, 'Back in the USA' (Just ask Let's Active or Handsome Dick Manitoba). So it may come as a surprise that Dream of Life isn't loaded with screaming guitars. Acoustic guitar, voice and piano dominate many of the songs, and even the two loudest tracks ("Up There Down There" and "People Have the Power") lack the ferocity of Lenny Kaye's best guitar work with the old Patti Smith Group, achieving instead a layered and textured approach.
"Fred is well versed in all kinds of music - jazz, classkal, he's got all that, and his knowledge permeates many directions. If the album has developed in ways that people find new, they're simply getting glimpses of Fred and the communkation between us. . . . It's a full collaboration, we don't go off into separate rooms and come up with music and lyrics. We talk about it."
"For instance, 'People Have the Power' was one where we spent days and days talking about the concept of the song before I sat down and wrote the lyrics. He had given me the title, and we talked a lot about the philosophy of the song, what I wanted to do with a song of that title. Another time, we might be sitting at the piano and words would rush into my head. So there's no specific rules about the creative process."
She downplays the length of her time away, saying there was no special difficulty about communicating with her audience for the first time in nine years. "All albums are difficult, they always have been. But I can't say that this one was any more or less difficult. Except that I had my second child right in the middle of it, so that gave it a difficulty the others didn't have. There's always a fluidity that comes in the creative process that's wonderful, you have your great moments and your stuck moments. But that's the same of any project, you have growing and struggling times."
"People Have the Power" probably caught a lot of old fans by surprise. The hippie-ish sentiments are odd enough, but the kicker is that Smith expresses them convincingly. "That's a gift type of song. I mean it to give some kind of positive energy and hope to people in a very difficult time. The song addresses itself to the various dreams that mankind has and reminds us that perhaps we can achieve those dreams if we work together. It's not intended to incite so much as to remind people." Would she have believed those sentiments at the time of Horses? "Sure. I was never a pessimist' person. I questioned many things and had a growling nature, but that doesn't mean pessimism. Art is by nature optimistic. If one keeps working one has hope for the future. If one didn't feel that, one would crawl into an opium den and pull covers over their heads."
"I've always believed in the power of music, in the power of all types of communication.... When I was younger and working within the group process, one of our preoccupations was to try and inspire radio programmers and young DJs, all the people from various stations, to use their position wisely. Not just to play some hit songs but to address issues, talk to people, present new types of music. When 'Because the Night' was a fair success, Lenny (Kaye) and I went to a lot of radio stations. And we'd say, forget it, don't play it. 'Because the Night' got played thousands of times; people don't need to hear it again. Play 'Manic Depression'or something. Or talk about pollution, but use that space better."
Smith's old aggression flares on "Up There Down There," the one tune where she and Fred get to show a few snarls. "That one isn't as benevolent. It's sort of an oblique, abstract attempt, but it has less patience with people. The line that says, 'Time for communion,' was originally going to say 'talking communion.' It's saying that if we don't get together and do certain things, we're going to lose what we have. The song addresses the elements, all the possibilities that man has at his fingertips: the air we breathe, the flame of wisdom, the earth we grind, the beckoning sea. It reminds us that if we keep messing with these elements, they're going to be gone. If any song was intended to get people moving in a more concentrated, concerned direction, that's the one."
In that sense, Patti Smith's designs are even grander now than they were in the '70s. Unfashionable as it may seem, she has the drive to aim for social change through her songs and the faith to see it happening. "It's not that I wasn't open to that before, just that I've developed a deeper and more articulate conscience.... I've always felt certain things, whether or not I addressed them when I was younger. I wept when we fought the Vietnam war, but I wasn't a political activist.
"It might sound like I'm sitting here making Jesse Jackson speeches, but it is time to make things better. We have to help our fellow man, we have to address problems like AIDS, we have to amass the money to find a cure. We have to make people aware of the dangers, we have to clean up this world. I mean, every time I fill a water glass for my son, I'm thinking, is there too high a lead content in this water? We need to get a great cosmic broom and sweep up the planet. I've had millions of dreams of the great collective, of the whole planet ringing in prayer."
Her concerns as a parent inform even a politically based song like the new album's epic, "Where Duty Calls." "I have great respect for the religious philosophies of man," she explains. "And that gives one compassion for how [men] pursue the path of their ideology. . . . When you see any type of terrorist activity, one watches the mothers and fathers of the fallen soldiers weeping and one feels for them. If it's a kamikaze kind of work, one always mourns for the victims. But then it occurred to me that the terrorist who died has a mother weeping somewhere, but no one is chanting for her. So I was imagining that somewhere in Beirut or somewhere in the desert complex, there is a woman in black, weeping for her son, and in that respect she's no different from the mother of a soldier. That's just so sad; we all have the same God and we're killing each other. So the song is meant to be angry and compassionate."
"Looking For You" continues a hidden theme in Patti Smith's records: a nod to the '60s girl-group sound. It's there in "Frederick" and "Redondo Beach," and it sneaks up at the end of this tune. Just when she's got you in a sensitive mood, the harmonies come in and you're back two decades with the Shangri-Las.
"Those harmonies - the first time I heard them I said 'Oh no, turn them off!' They seemed funny, but I got to like them. When I was younger, I loved the Ronettes and Darlene Love, but those things are usually pretty accidental and harmonies certainly aren't my forte. That's another case where Fred might say 'Try this,' and something that isn't really conscious will happen."
What about the risk of singing about peace and happiness in these cynical times, the possibility that her audience has gotten hardened to such ideas? "The album isn't designed to make people feel good. It's designed to motivate people to make things better. It's not only about being happy and having kids: it addresses itself to the whole life cycle. The birth of the child, the pain and pleasure that a parent feels, the joys of relationships. Also the struggle of losing people that one cares about. As Fred said once, Dream of life' can also mean 'Dream of death."'
Don't expect a tour in the near future; don't expect another album as soon as this one falls off the charts, and don't expect all those unrecorded songs of the last nine years to ever see the light of day. just expect that Patti and Fred Smith, in one form or another, will be keeping in touch. "I might have made a conscious decision not to tour, but I didn't make the decision not to be an artist. Fred and I have many ideas, a lot of writing and a lot of work yet to be done. I have several books that aren't yet complete, and other musical plans that need to be developed. Our main goal is to do good work, work that will inspire people; but I can't say exactly what we'll do, and I can't say we'll do anything in the traditional way, like record/tour. All I can promise you is that anything we do, either individually or mutually, will be done with tremendous amounts of care."
With that she's off to her home in the heart of Detroit, presumably to make dinner for the kids and more art for everybody else. (END)
Copyright © Pulse Magazine 1988