Recording of September 1996: Gone Again

Arista 07822-18747-2 (CD only). Malcolm Burn, prod., eng.; Lenny Kaye, prod.; Brian Sperber, eng.; Greg Calbi, mastering. TT: 55:58

Where Patti Smith led, I followed, a respectable, whitebread suburban distance behind, generally much later than sooner: the 1968 Democratic Convention (where Smith's husband-to-be Fred "Sonic" Smith led White Panther John Sinclair's "house band," the incomparable MC5), Jah reggae, Mapplethorpe, Springsteen. Packed away somewhere with the Wallace Stevens and John Berryman my-then-poetry-prof Helen Vendler said I'd never have the soul for ("Major in history," she said) is a copy of Seventh Heaven, Smith's first book of poetry, sent to me by Smith herself after I'd written something to her following a squib in Creem. It scared me to death.

Live and learn. Born an old soul, Patti Smith has earned the right to sing the blues, and you know what? She won't do it. Instead, Gone Again, her first release in eight years, takes the deaths of friends artist Robert Mapplethorpe and keyboardist Richard Sohl, and, within one month in 1994, her younger brother Todd and her husband Fred, and turns this album into a work of grace not far off a contemporary incarnation of whatever made Richard Strauss compose Tod und Verklärung. You could call these 11 tracks sacred songs, and you wouldn't be wrong; Smith's hard-won spirituality empowers her to stagger though what seems like the Stations of the Cross ("Fireflies") and come up with a rainbow ("Final Reel"). This album does not hit one wrong emotional note, and if tears and a smile don't spontaneously erupt somewhere in Gone Again ("My Madrigal," for me), you're not listening.

Stylistically, well, Smith doesn't sing, exactly, but that's not the point. She's a poet, and the genre she's created—words+music=presence—is entirely new. There's a lot of Americana in her voiced deliveries here, Dylan in "Beneath the Southern Cross," Appalachian folk music, country twang, James Dickey ("Summer Cannibals"). Fading in and out of the aural range like a wisp of Ophelia's mad song ("Fireflies"), Smith made herself manifest in my Saturday-evening living room like a seance, a hologram, a ghost: She was there, sometimes talking to others, to herself, sometimes talking to me—something that has never happened to me before, ever. This isn't easy stuff, but listen up and it'll bring you through catharsis. Maenad, Mourning.

The sound is flawless. I've never heard a cleaner recording; when a passage is quiet behind Smith's voice or a solo piano, the silence is as present as black velvet behind gold. Instrumental tone—piano, Jane Scarpantoni's cello on "My Madrigal"—is pure, transparent; a very light helping of studio and guitar glitter-trix ("Think but this...That you have but slumber'd here / While these visions did appear") eases the CD's gradual transition from Lear to Tempest. Ribbons, too, to Lenny Kaye, who played and co-produced.

Gone Again brings to mind Smith's visionary, John Cale-produced 1975 debut, Horses, with nods to Wave and Easter. (Arista has reissued all five of her previous albums as remastered CDs, all with previously unreleased tracks.) It's less like 1988's "come-back" Dream of Life, which she did with her husband (if you were at equipoise, would you want to be dragged back into the record business?).

This is a perfect work. Some people say Patti Smith is the Emily Dickinson of modern music; I say John Donne.—Beth Jacques

This one also is for Lester Bangs, whom Greil Marcus reports to have noted: "Heaven was Detroit, Michigan. Who woulda thunk it?"