Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Return Engagement

A legendary singer is back in form.

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Ten years ago, while participating in a music-business convention in New York City, I stood on a street curb hailing a cab in the rain. A small, frail woman with deeply lined features and straggly salt-and-pepper hair politely asked where I was headed. It turned out we were going to the same convention gathering, so we decided to split the fare. When I asked if she was in the music business, she said she had been, but it had been awhile. Now she lived in Michigan and spent most of her time as a mother and housewife. When she found out I was a music critic, she popped question after question, inquiring about new bands and old favorites. All the while, her voice was gentle, her manner courteous yet strangely intense.

We kept talking as we got out of the cab and walked inside. Before we got very far, several people rushed to her. It was then that I heard a man, in a grandly pompous voice, introduce his friends to Patti Smith. She looked at me just as my mouth dropped and my face flushed, and she let out the kind of wickedly wry smile people flash when they're in on a joke.

I stood dumbfounded for several minutes. During the ride, I'd listed her among my rock 'n' roll heroes. She responded by asking if I'd ever seen a live performance by Iggy Pop, another name I'd referenced. Inside the hotel, standing there frozen in a mix of panic and embarrassment, I desperately wished I owned the ability to disappear at will. Unable to, I tried to back away slowly. But she motioned for me to wait.

After a while, she led me aside. We both laughed and apologized, and we found an out-of-the-way place to talk some more--about aging (she was 40, I was 30), about marriage and relationships, about growing up in an industrial Northern city, and about the period in life when rock 'n' roll goes beyond simply feeding hormonal urges.

At the time, it had been eight years since Smith had retreated from rock 'n' roll stardom, hiding out in the home state of her husband, Fred Smith, a former member of the Detroit-based MC5. It was hard for her fans to envision the onetime underground priestess living in a Detroit suburb. She personified punk rock before the term had been coined; how could she have ended up frying eggs and dusting furniture and birthing babies?

It wasn't so hard to imagine after meeting her. That day, she came across as reflective, considerate, and curious about literature, art, and existence. The woman who had opened her first album by seething "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" now spoke of writing lullabies and singing her children to sleep.

That experience was a far cry from my previous encounter with her. In 1979, for a press conference in San Francisco, she changed arrangements at the last minute and sent word that she wasn't leaving her hotel room. If anyone wanted to talk to her, they had to come to her. Always wan, that day she appeared unbelievably thin and bedraggled, with enormous dark circles under her eyes and an equally dark air of hostility hovering around her.

Crowd control
Patti Smith's shows promise to recall confrontational live performances from years past
Photo by Oliver Ray

"I'm not human," she once repeated in one of the most fiercely chilling lines ever delivered in a rock 'n' roll song. That day, the line sounded like prophecy. As a crowd of reporters filed into the room, she pointed at one and barked a question inquiring about her intentions. She then looked the crowd over, eyes raging, and said that she wanted each person to explain why they were there. If she didn't like the answer, she said, she would order them to leave. Fortunately, it never got that far; her mind skipped to another topic, and the press conference, as it was, had begun.

Less than three months later, on Sept. 10, 1979, Smith performed her final concert before going into seclusion. There was no fanfare, no farewell tour. No one knew she was going away until long after she was already gone. Suddenly, the message she presented on the cover of her fourth album, 1979's Wave, seemed ominous: There she stood, waving goodbye, white doves perched on her fingers. In the mid-'70s, Smith had often ended concerts by saying, "Next time we're in town, don't even come to see us. Be at another club playing yourself." Her departure cashed in on an old promise.

The week we met in New York, Smith had rejoined with Arista Records to announce her comeback. The following year, she released Dream of Life, a collaboration with her husband that featured the radio anthem "People Have the Power" and several of the lullabies she had been working on. Less unhinged and impassioned than her earlier work, the collection also showed a deeper sense of compassion and connection. But it was hardly a major coming out. She performed only twice, and she granted only one interview before rushing back into hiding.

Smith started work on another album prior to her husband's death in November of 1994. Her brother Todd Smith, to whom she had always been very close, died a month later. Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial New York photographer who had been her roommate and best friend, had also just died after a long bout with AIDS. Smith reacted by pouring herself into music with a commitment she hadn't shown in more than 16 years. The life-changing events she'd experienced greatly affected the music she created; 1996's Gone Again turned out as a collective thread of moody, folk-like dirges pondering mortality, loss, and spiritual renewal. As mad as it is sad, the album has a beautiful defiance that suggests people sometimes grow both more vulnerable and more resilient as they age.

Smith's quick follow-up, the new Peace and Noise, is even stronger. Back in touch with her rage, the singer fills the album with an edgy, simmering power that rarely erupts in release. Instead, the record churns along at a moderate pace, filled with uneasy passages that are sometimes difficult to endure--though they're always worth the trouble. Overall, Smith takes greater chances here than on any album she's made since 1976's Radio Ethiopia.

Although she has been performing intermittently since last year, Smith recently embarked on her first full-fledged U.S. tour in more than 18 years. Word has it that the more she plays live, the more she transforms herself into an aggressively confrontational performer once again, leaving damaged roadies and bruised photographers in her wake. She's spitting, scowling, propelling herself wildly across stages, and spouting impromptu comments. (At one show, she introduced the song "Piss Factory" by saying, "Here's one my mother vacuums the floor to.") She's opening many of her concerts by reading from her volumes of poetry, then bringing out the band, which includes such longtime supporters as guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer J.D. Daugherty.

By the time she reaches 328 Performance Hall on Dec. 19, she will have traveled quite a distance since she first reappeared 10 years ago. Gone is the frail housewife from Michigan. Patti Smith is back.

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