Patti Smith remembers. Her album Twelve features her covers of a range of great songs—from The Rolling Stones to Nirvana, from the Allman Brothers to Stevie Wonder—and she does them all justice. One suspects that that’s because Smith sees these musical artists as heroes who have influenced her and added to her sense of the art of rock. That she finds ways to make the songs hers indicates more versatility than one might have supposed her to possess—which is a way of saying that Smith has matured considerably by the time of this album; 60 in 2006, she seems to be in a debt-paying frame of mind, before it’s time to go (she says she's had lists for covers albums going back to 1978).
Way back in 1979 when Smith released her fourth album, Wave, I compiled a cassette tape on which I alternated tracks by The Doors with tracks by Patti Smith. It was my way of attesting to the fact that Smith seemed a true descendant of Morrison’s sense of lyrical excess as the basis for rock apotheosis. Morrison was dead eight years by then, four years when Smith’s first album arrived and showed her debt in what it meant to be a “rock poet.” So, of all the covers on Twelve, my natural choice is today’s song wherein Smith merges with Morrison. She manages more twang—kit-chin, sto-wove—than he does and it suits the song, which has a hominess that attests to how welcoming a kitchen can be, a hearth, a heart, all that. Oh yeah, and good eats.
Smith refrains from versifying on the song, choosing to play it very faithfully, even to the point of an exactly rendered drop on the fourth “learn to forget,” emphasizing “learn,” just as Jim did. That phrase “learn to forget” emerges as the mantra of the song, suggesting that departing from the soul kitchen, where the speaker would really rather stay all night, is something best forgotten later. Maybe even the soul kitchen, with its gentle, mind-warming stove, is best forgotten, as one lights another cigarette and gets on with whatever there is to get on with.
The more ambiguous line follows the effects of that departure: “Streetlights share their hollow glow / Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise / Still one place to go.” Where is there to go? Having gone into the street—“stumbling in the neon grove” is a nice figure for it—bruised and numb, what is the last possible destination? Could it be—death?
If so, the “numb surprise” (Morrison often has a knack for well-chosen adjective-noun pairings) may be that that’s all that’s left. And the leaving of the “soul kitchen”—a kitchen with soul food, sure, but also a kitchen where the soul is “prepared,” where a woman’s fingers “speak in secret alphabets”—is tantamount to leaving an earthly paradise, or, maybe, the only reason for living. Still this is a glum song, perhaps even a bit surly, but it doesn’t seem despairing, and that’s because the imperative, “Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen / Warm my mind near your gentle stove,” keeps up a kind of prospective possibility. Unlike Eden, we may return to the soul kitchen, eventually. “Turn me out and I’ll wander, baby.” Yes, Cain-like, no doubt, some misdeed to be forgotten, much like the bliss that preceded the fall.
Then again, the way the part about “the clock says it’s time to close now / I guess I better go now” comes back around at the end does feel like an adios to the whole deal. As Groucho says, “I’ll do anything you say / I’ll even stay / But . . . I must be going . . .”