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The joy of Patti Smith

By Ted Drozdowski

MARCH 28, 2000:  One of the beautiful things about art is that it restores one's faith in humanity -- in the gifts of vision, creativity, and awareness that separate us from the beasts, if not the beast within. It's become hard to look to popular music for that tonic in recent years. Sure, there's release in the cathartic howls of Korn, pleasure in the Aryan sleekness of Bush, affinity in the diary-like dalliances of Alanis Morissette, and education in the street reports of the Wu-Tang Clan. But none of them and none of their peers is aware enough to bring all of that together into a single album that embraces spirituality, mythology, history, social criticism, love songs, generous melodies, folk and textural music, protest, pan-culturalism, truly literate songwriting, and the horseshoe kick of rock and roll. That's why it's been so damn good to have Patti Smith back.

Smith's new Gung Ho (Arista) covers all of the above without stretching. It's her best since 1979's Wave, which preceded her marriage to former MC 5 guitarist Fred Smith and her eight-year absence from music. Of course, that's the kind of praise critics usually heap on this protean punk-rock spirit, who grew into the mainstream through the hits "Because the Night" and "Dancing Barefoot" yet clung to her will to improvise and perform poetry in arena-rock shows. Would it help to say that Gung Ho isn't as thrilling as her best '70s work, which helped define punk and then led it out of CBGB's, squinting, into the light? Would it be convincing if it were noted that her post-comeback efforts -- Dream of Life, Gone Again, Peace and Noise -- have until now failed to find the right balance of poetry, polemics, and rock's gut punch? Or would it help to say that when I was feeling the weight of being human -- heavy with the notion of a six-year-old's gunning another six-year-old to death at school, of a Pittsburgh gunman's unleashing his racial anger in point-blank executions of total strangers -- Gung Ho reminded me of the joy of being human?

The album's bedrock is Smith's scope -- her understanding that we're all made of pieces of the past and the present, plus hope for the future. And that to lose our sense of any of those is to sacrifice ourselves to less important distractions, like consumption and politics. There are times when she makes this point overtly. In the single "Glitter in Their Eyes," a return to the galloping guitar-driven glories of her past, she sings, "Our sacred stage/Has been defaced/Replaced to grace/The marketplace." And the album closes with the mesmeric, martial title track, a clear-eyed and touching biography of Ho Chi Minh. It unspools as a study in how pure intentions can result in an endless cycle of anguish. The song's terribly powerful, from its helicopter-blade guitars to Smith's full-bodied alto singing.

But for most of Gung Ho, Smith is more subtle. That's been her way since Dream of Life, which announced a warmer, less vindictive breed of social consciousness than she'd borne on her 1976 debut, Radio Ethiopia, and in her famed screed "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger." So three myth-based tunes open Gung Ho, using Eastern mysticism (replete with a tabla's beat and chanting), Biblical fable, and European folklore to contemplate the values of compassion and sanity, and the transcendent quality of innocence.

Three songs about spiritual and corporal love follow. The hippest is the psychedelic nugget "Persuasion," which was written by Smith and her late husband and comes wrapped in peals of furry guitar and a sailing Lyres-like Farfisa. "China Bird," built on a Dylanesque circular chord progression, sounds like a doves' cooing between the 52-year-old Smith and her 26-year-old lover and bandmate, Oliver Ray. Then the snarling starts with "Glitter." "Strange Messengers" follows, recounting the brutal side of African-American history. In one of the improvised endings that are her forte, Smith imagines herself as the soul of a black ancestor who fought for freedom from slavery and lynching. In character, she thunders, "Smoking crack/That's how you pay us back?" It's an audacious reminder that we need to respect those who struggled for us even before we were born, and what was at stake.

Maybe I've been listening to the wrong albums, but the only other well-known performers I've heard approach this kind of depth in recent years are Rage Against the Machine and Lauryn Hill. And neither has Smith's intellectual or emotional complexity -- to say nothing of Rage's tenuous hold on the concept of melody. One of Smith's virtues has always been an ability to fashion her few notes into caressing melodies. So ballads like "China Bird" and "Grateful" are there to soothe the savaged breast when the brain and the body are simply too weary to engage in all the glorious ranting, spiritual investigation, and self-examination she's distilled in Gung Ho.

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