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[from "Having Coffee with Patti Smith: Return of the Godmother of Punk," by Jon Pareles, New York Times, June 19, 1996.]

People like to tell Patti Smith that she changed their lives. "It happens almost every day," says the woman who might be called the godmother of punk, chatting over caffe latte at Cafe Mona Lisa on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. A woman at the next table overhears and smiles. "I'm one of them," she says shyly.

Ms. Smith, 49, is just a little bit grayer than she was when she started performing in the early 1970's at CBGB, the club on the Bowery that was a cradle of punk rock. With burning eyes and an unbridled, incantatory voice, she blazed a path through New York rock, singing and howling, improvising free-form poetry and distilling lyrics into anthems: "Outside of society/ That's where I wanna be."

At a show at Max's Kansas City in the late 1970's, she walked from the stage onto the cabaret tables, kicking drinks into the laps of startled record-company executives. "I might do that again," she says. "But now, I'd clean up after myself."

Ms. Smith claimed the visionary, shamanistic role that male rockers had sought in the 1960's, earning it with performances that were volatile and heartfelt. She sang about freedom and sex, rapture and rebellion and God. Current alternative rockers like Courtney Love, P. J. Harvey and Alanis Morissette owe her no small debt.

Yet, Ms. Smith now says that her ambitions were modest. "I never wanted to be a rock musician," she says. "I couldn't play anything, I never really wrote songs very much and I didn't perceive that I had any specific abilities. I really considered that our group's worth would be opening doors and reminding people of the rawer roots of rock and roll. I felt like I was the person who stuck the finger in the dike until somebody would come."

With Bruce Springsteen, Ms. Smith wrote a 1978 hit single "Because the Night." Then, a year later, she withdrew. She married the guitarist Fred (Sonic) Smith, moved to Detriot, his hometown, and started to raise a family (her sons are now 9 and 14). The couple collaborated on an album, Dream of Life, in 1988. They were working on new songs when Mr. Smith died of heart failure in 1994.

Yesterday, Ms. Smith released Gone Again, an album of waltzes, elegies and meditations on death and transfiguration, and she is scheduled to perform two shows on Friday and Saturday at Irving Plaza (both are sold out). W. W. Norton has just published The Coral Sea, a book of prose poems that Ms. Smith wrote after the death of her longtime friend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.

Ms. Smith is still rail thin and small boned, with an intense, thoughtful gaze rendered eerie by a wandering left eye. Her nubby gray shirt looks vaguely penitential. The Cafe Mona Lisa is one of her favorite hangouts, she says, partly because it's across the street from Matt Umanov's venerable guitar store, her "second home" in New York. And partly, she adds, "because they play a lot of opera here."

"I love opera," she says. "That's the only singing ambition I ever had. I dreamed about being an opera singer. Of course, I was such a skinny little thing and had no voice, no chest—no future in opera."

Her future lay in music that had just as much emotion, but fewer technical hurdles: rock. As the 1970's began, she was known as a poet and Off Off Broadway actress, part of the downtown arts underground. She collaborated with Sam Shepard on a play about dueling rock musicians, Cowboy Mouth. At a poetry reading in 1971, she performed three pieces backed by Lenny Kaye on guitar, and gradually assembled a band. In 1974, she released one of the earliest punk-rock singles, financed by Mapplethorpe; one side was the garage-rock anthem "Hey Joe"; the other was her ferocious poem about working on an assembly line, called "Piss Factory."

Although Ms. Smith often combines songwriting and poetry, she still sees the two as separate realms. "Poetry is for me a real in-depth struggle," she says. "A lot of it is encoded, and it's almost like creating a new language. To me, a song should be the opposite. It should be so simple and clean and clear that the music is the code."

By the mid-1970's, punk rock was stirring at CBGB, with bands like Television and the Ramones as well as the Patti Smith Group. And with four albums in five years, from 1975 to 1979, Ms. Smith made her way from club stages to stadiums. The Patti Smith Group's last concert took place before 70,000 people in Florence. Then, in the fall of 1979, she dissolved the band.

"Basically, I had fallen in love with Fred and I didn't like being parted from him," Ms. Smith says. "When I had the band and we started performing, I really gave everything to it. I gave my time, my energy, my love. But my feelings for Fred were so strong that when I was on tour and away from him it didn't mean anything, and I felt extremely false being on stage."

"I also felt that as a band we had accomplished our mission," she continues. "I had said everything that I could say at that point. We did what we set out to do. There was a new guard; rock and roll wasn't going to die. I felt like it was a discreet time to leave. I never regretted that, ever, not for a moment."

Ms. Smith spent the 1980's living in Detroit with her family. "I did all the usual things, laundry and tending to children," she says. "But I also did a lot of studying, which I have always really loved. I'm completely happy just immersing myself in something. I studied 16th-century Japanese literature, I studied painting again. And I wrote diligently through the 1980's, novels. There are about five books that I haven't published yet."

Before her husband's death, he had been urging Ms. Smith to make a full-fledged rock album. "He got competitive in my name," she says. "A rock-oriented album was something that he knew I could do well, and he was afraid that people might forget what I could do. I told him I really didn't care, but he really wanted me to. He had all these ideas. He wanted me to have a gold record, which I never had, and he decided we would perform some.

"I'm not really competitive by nature, I just do my work. I'm like a horse with blinders. I don't compare myself to other people."

Her husband also started teaching her guitar chords. "I practiced really hard and learned to write these little songs," she says. "But I never learned to play anything but waltz time." As a result, Gone Again is full of waltzes, gentle ones and harsh ones, though Mr. Smith collaborated on two rockers. The album is haunted by mortality; a month after Ms. Smith's husband died, her brother Todd had a fatal heart attack. And by the time she was recording the album in 1995, rock had also seen the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Jerry Garcia. But the album is as hopeful as it is mournful, seeing death not only as an ending but as a release: "Oh/to be," she sings, "not anyone/ gone."

"Gone Again is more personal than Fred and I ever wanted to do an album," she says. "I know that it's a pretty personal piece of work to inflict on people.

"One thing I have found experiencing a lot of loss in a short period of time is that you really have to allow yourself to go through a full gamut of things, and not feel guilty when you feel inexplicable joy, freedom or excitement after you lose a loved one, as well as total desolation."

"I found that not only does one feel sorrow, but one is magnified by the good qualities of one's loved one," she says. "I felt like after Fred died I was a better singer. Fred was a master musician, while I've always been a glorified amateur. When he died—I've never written so many songs, my voice was strong, I really felt like I was magnified by his spirit. When Robert Mapplethorpe died, my work got better because Robert and I always had a very intense working relationship. And when my brother died, who was so joyful and so happy and so supportive, when he died, after the shock passed, I felt really happy. It's just like his happiness was in me."

Ms. Smith had drawn thousands of fans to a 1993 poetry reading as part of the Central Park Summerstage series. Before his death, her brother had urged her to return to performing. "When I did," she says, "I really thought I'd be more dignified, and a little more quiet. I thought that I had grown up a little, not totally, because artists never grow up. But I am surprised to find out that I can still be trouble."

Ms. Smith finishes her coffee and walks across the street to Matt Umanov's, looking down Bleecker Street. She plans to move back to the city. "New York has always been good to me," she says. "I've lived in the streets or in the subways, I've slept in parks and I've never been harmed. I've had great adventures here, so I really consider that I'm coming back home. Without a Midwestern accent, I hope."

She decides to try a vintage guitar and starts strumming a new song, "Grateful"—inspired, she says, because someone teased her about her gray hair and she envisioned Jerry Garcia's silvery mane. She sings quietly, strumming basic rock chords, nothing fancy.

"I'm a very benevolent songwriter," she says. "My songs aren't hard. Anyone can play them."

Copyright © Jon Pareles 1996

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