Monday, June 11, 2012

Patti Smith's "Banga"

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.
Out of the formless stone, when the artist united himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man that is joined to the soul of stone;
Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist's eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.
- T.S. Eliot

Watching Patti Smith in the documentary Dream of Life, being interviewed in Manhattan when she was pushing 30 and punk was about to explode, she sounds callow and brash, trying to align herself with the literary eternals while distancing herself from her Catholic upbringing in the Jersey 'burbs. I'll admit to being unimpressed when I heard her debut album Horses on the radio when it was new, back in '75; to my teenage ears, her marriage of poetics with garage rock sounded forced, self-conscious, and lacking in punch. Back then, I was enamored with the sound of amp distortion as an aesthetic standard, and would have agreed with Joe Carducci's dismissive assessment from Rock and the Pop Narcotic: "...a rock critic's (Lenny Kaye) and a poet's (P. Smith) romanticization of what 'rock uh roll' should be; I can't say they were entirely unlearned in this regard but you get my drift." 

After her initial breakthrough, she had a hit penned for her by fellow Jerseyite Brooce Springsteen, then married an idol of mine -- ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith -- and disappeared into a decade of domesticity in Detroit, re-emerging at the ass-end of the '80s with an album co-written and produced by her husband that wasn't the best music from either of them. (For my money, the worthiest confluence of their spirits is to be found in the two Wave songs Fred inspired: "Dancing Barefoot," which might be Patti's best song, and "Frederick," for which she borrowed the chord progression from a song he wrote for Sonic's Rendezvous Band, and sang as Madonna might have.) After that, I lost the thread.

She made a believer of me, though, with a performance at Big D's Gypsy Tea Room back in Y2K. (My future wife was there, too, although we didn't know each other at the time. That night, my sweetie beat a speeding ticket by having the good fortune to get stopped by what must have been the only Fort Worth cop who was also a Patti Smith fan.) Smith had the soundman play Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Hendrix's Electric Ladyland in their entirety before her band hit, and then delivered a performance that earned such a warm-up. Onstage, she had the most spiritual presence of any performer I've ever seen; even more so than Van Morrison when I saw him in Austin back in '79 (although not more than his iconic 1970 Fillmore East "Cypress Avenue" that I saw on PBS when I was 13, but that's the league she's in).

Hers has been quite an odyssey. She's been a rockcrit and Blue Oyster Cult lyricist, poet and playwright, muso and visual artist, best-selling author (2010's Just Kids, the success of which interrupted work on Banga), wife and mother, and endured grief and loss -- the commonalities we all share, but which most of us prefer not to talk about -- time and time again: her husband, her beloved brother, her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, her parents, even her piano player. Experience has brought her dimensions of grace and depth, and in her maturity, her art has finally achieved the transcendence that she was reaching for in her youth. When she interjects a tender "Hey, wake up" in the middle of her new album's opening track, "Amerigo," it's as if she means to rouse the listener from a dream she's conjured of the explorer Vespucci, but then we drift back off, borne away on a bed of strings, and witness him being transformed by the people he meets in the New World. Her voice has the same plaintive quality it had in her 30s, but age has given it added warmth.

Banga is about journeys of discovery, from Vespucci and Columbus to the artist and her guitar player making a pilgrimage, following the stations of St. Francis. (For a performer who fired her opening salvo at the world at large by declaiming the line "Jesus died for someone's sins but not mine," her lyrics continue to overflow with religious allusions.) As she explains in her liner notes, some of the songs were written on a cruise she and Kaye took with French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, while others had their genesis in Puerto Rico, on location with Johnny Depp. (The punk poetess is now a familiar of the famous.)

Being the kind of listener who hears lyrics last, I got a few things wrong the first few spins. F'rinstance, the first time I heard "Fuji-san," her prayer for the people of Japan following last year's tsunami and nuclear disaster, I thought she was singing the Japanese word for "grandfather" ("Oji-san" -- as in Shoukichi Kina's Okinawan pop hit "Hai Sai Oji-san"), and it made me tear up (we do get more sentimental as we get older, and the word triggered my own associations). And on the title track -- one of three songs here inspired by Nikolai Bulgakov's novel The Master and Marguerita -- I thought she and the chorus were singing "Soul Finger" instead of "Say Banga." Duh.

On the latter song, the closest thing to a rave-up rocker here, she celebrates the connection she shares with her audience and with her long-time collaborators: Kaye, who wrote the music for three songs; bassist/keyboardist Tony Shanahan, who wrote the music for four; drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, who contributed the music for "Mosaic;" and ex-Television honcho Tom Verlaine, who solos with typical aplomb on "April Fool" and "Nine." Her children are here, too: son Jackson on guitar for five songs, including a simple but beautifully constructed slide solo on "Maria" (an elegy for the tragically fated Last Tango In Paris actress Maria Schneider) and subtle but impactful adlibs on the Sun Ra-inspired "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter);" daughter Jesse playing piano on a pastoral version of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" that might have been an outtake from Smith's "covers album" Twelve, but here provides a gentle valediction to offset the horrific vision of environmental apocalypse that climaxes the penultimate track, "Constantine's Dream."

At its core, Banga is as fervent a prayer for the Earth and humankind as were A Love Supreme, Astral Weeks, and What's Going On before it: a soul-healing sound for a moment in history when we could use some soul healing. At 65, Smith retains her empathy and compassion for the younguns; the doo-wop ballad "This Is the Girl" eulogizes Amy Winehouse the same way "About A Boy" did Kurt Cobain, and her apocalyptic fears are driven by a mother's concern for the world her children will live in when she's gone. I'm not sure how this all of this resonates for members of Winehouse's generation, but to these feedback-scorched ears, it sounds like Smith's finest music yet, and gives me hope that perhaps her best work is still in front of her.


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