tangible evidence that misfits had their place

[from "A Misfit's Soulmates, Lost and Found," by Jill Schensul, Record (Northern New Jersey), June 16, 1996]

Patti Smith turns 50 this year.

Her new album comes out Tuesday.

It is called Gone Again. Ironically, it is the most here she's been, musically, since her 1975 debut album, Horses. It is also the most here she's been, physically, since she dropped out of The Scene in 1980.

Patti's return with Gone has come at the perfect time. Her two upcoming Irving Plaza shows sold out in three minutes.

We missed her.

The first time I heard Patti Smith I was a college student in Ithaca, N.Y., driving down a two-lane road with no center line to guide me. I turned on the radio in the middle of one very twisted version of Them's "Gloria," sung in this fluid, sensuous, delicate, hard-edged, taunting voice, bending genders and breaking barriers. That voice drove right through me.

It was Patti Smith , 1973. Before Chrissie. Before Madonna. Before Alanis or Melissa. Before any of those "women pioneers."

Patti climbed feline onstage back then, with raggedy hair and a complexion the color of grade-school paste and a go-to-hell smile slashed across her face. She'd claw at her T-shirts and writhe in black stretch pants that were still too big, prowling across bar tops and melting against band mates. Every part of her was bony, not just her awkward knees and elbows. Her poetry was bony. Her voice was bony. Her personality was bony.

I thought she was beautiful.

In her hard-edged way, she was my comfort. A focus. Tangible evidence that misfits had their place.

Mine was often in line with the other post-Sixties misfits, sometimes in the cold, sometimes in the heat, waiting to get into one of her shows. Waiting for the best table at CBGBs, or standing room at the Bottom Line. Always by myself—in a crowd with the other loners. Leaning against brick walls, sitting on cold sidewalks, covering sad hearts with fierce attitudes. We were strangers but allies, too. Somebody'd get burgers while the rest of us kept the places in line. Somebody'd pass a joint, or a bottle of something to keep us warm. Nobody exchanged names, or numbers.

Odd pieces, we were. Coming jaggedly together for just a few hours, into a picture that somehow made sense. And when Patti would come onstage and hold out her hand and close her doe eyes, and her band would build a swirling miasma of rhythm around her hair-raising images and her free, feverish lust, we were all there with her. Together. And we saw, I guess, what mattered. What was real. What counted, when you got right down to it.

Like most kids, I was drawn to music; it gave form to my feelings, validity to my isolation. It kept me company in despair—the despair of being different. A loner. Alone.

"Outside of society, that's where I wanna be!" she yelled back then in the anthemic "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger."

And then, she really was. Outside of rock-and-roll society, anyway, the one she had gravitated to when she left her home in Woodbury and blew off her degree at Glassboro State Teacher's College in the late Sixties and moved into NYC bohemia with a struggling artist named Robert Mapplethorpe. After four albums that did marginally well, she went off with musician Fred "Sonic" Smith in 1980, and moved to the Detroit suburbs. She got married and had two kids.

Gone, just like that. Unbelievable. My Patti Smith, subsumed into domesticity?

I mollified myself with the thought that at least she had married the guitarist from MC5, a very noisy, radical band whose anthem "Kick Out the Jams" got me through many an all-nighter at Cornell. Still, word was she had become a housewife.

Patti was, in fact, doing suburbia her way, but it would be 16 years before she let us in on what that was.

In the meantime, evolution took its course. Music turned into the music industry. Its joy was crushed by the wheels of big business.

Before I knew it, I forged new attachments. I had a mortgage, and a job I loved, and a dog. I even got married (he played music, of course). I had gone down the same path as Patti. I realized what had lured her into domesticity.

For a while, it was OK. That is, I didn't notice what was happening. Then something began to gnaw at the back of my mind. Something was missing.

My life had faded into complacency. The joy was gone. I worried that I might disappear.

I wanted to get in a car and turn down the top and turn up the radio. I wanted to feel the rush of that first time I heard "Gloria" on that lonely road.

But life is not a Kerouac novel—at least not for most of us. Some middle-aged trappings aren't so bad, really, at least not bad enough to override the fear of the unknown. I never did drive away.

But I did listen harder to the music. I figured out that life depended on how you approached it. And it was better if you lived it consciously.

Through a much more painful route, Patti had come to a similar conclusion. The new album's title, Gone Again, refers in part to a recent series of deaths that touched her deeply: Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989; band member Richard Sohl in 1990; her husband, Fred, in 1994; and her brother, Todd, a month later. One song, "About a Boy," is about Nirvana's Kurt Cobain; haunting echoes of Jerry Garcia infuse another song. All gone.

Patti understandably was shattered by the deaths, but also uplifted by the legacy that remained within her. "I keep waking up a hundred times a day, like this second, and thinking I'm alive, this moment is precious," she told one interviewer.

Since Fred's death, Patti has slowly moved back into the public world.

Shouts of " We missed you" and "We love you, Patti," burst from the audience at the Beacon Theater in December, when Patti Smith opened a show for Bob Dylan.

I, of course, was there.

I had gone with trepidation. Was it better to keep my 16-year-old memories? I wondered, as I sat down near a gray-haired man in a baseball cap who was talking on a cellular phone, how we had changed, Patti and I.

I looked around, at the faces of the "old white people,' as one woman in the crowd described it: well-groomed yuppies and graying hippies, sunken-eyed burnouts and furtive fashion victims.

These were the kids I passed the bottle around with. These were the kids I shivered with on the gray sidewalks. These were my soulmates.

I was one of them.

And what was I? Where did I fit in—if anywhere?

The lights went down, then. And an undernourished wisp of spirit danced out onto the stage. That slashing mouth and those doe eyes, it seemed as if nothing had changed. Was it possible nothing had?

She shot sparks. The ends of her hands vibrated. Patti Smith's pale white fingers grabbed dreamily for air, with no hope of catching it.

"I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be," she cried. " 'Not Fade Away.'" How appropriate. "Go ahead," I thought, feeling her steam sweep through the audience.

The ends of Patti's fingers were shaking. Shaking me.

I was so happy to see her. Patti, the gray strands making her hair just a little more straggly, her feet bare, her wan face showing—when you got up close—the character of pain and joy. She sang a few of her old songs, but mainly paid homage to those who meant everything to her, the living and the dead. She sang her new song for Cobain, and a cover of "Wicked Messenger" for its author, Bob Dylan, and dedicated "Not Fade Away" to Garcia. She sang for her children and her husband, whose loss was achingly tangible.

"Are you crying?" my husband asked as the lights came up 45 minutes later. Obviously, yes. But it wasn't simply because Fred Smith had died.

I couldn't say why, exactly.

I looked at the audience, the guy dialing his cell phone, the men in their Burberrys, the porky dude in the balcony mopping his forehead ridiculously.

We were together. Again. Over the course of the years, we were the ones who had made it. As Patti reminded us, a lot of people hadn't. Through love and work and war and death and the whims of fate and the bitter tricks of irony. We were here. Doing the best we could.

The echo of her voice, and all it carried with it, shuddered in the smoky air. Somewhere inside, a spark flared.

Copyright © Jill Schensul 1996

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