Today’s birthday girl, Patti Smith, got into my blood in the summer of 1978 after Easter was released. And in 1979 came Wave. Those two albums capped off the streak that began with Horses (1975) and Radio Ethiopia (1976). That’s classic period Patti. Songs from those four albums graced the tape I made of songs alternating between Patti and The Doors.
I thought initially I’d take a song from back then, something like the sensual bacchanalia that is “Break It Up,” from Horses, or the randy, mercurial seduction of “Ain’t it Strange” from her second album. Or even the prayerful plea of “Privilege (Set Me Free),” on her third, or a song that seemed tailored for me and MEM in 1979: “Dancing Barefoot.” All those songs carry a charge I could attest to, for sure.
But then I thought of a song Kajsa gave me by Patti Smith from 1996’s Gone Again. It was the return of Patti Smith, as I hadn’t heard her since those high and free late Seventies days. She had lost her husband, lost her first love Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother, and her early bandmate Richard Sohl. And hearing her haggard voice again was moving. In fact, the vocal that brought me to tears was her special guest appearance on R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” from New Adventures in Hi Fi that same year. It took me by surprise to be hearing her, and to know, as Gloucester says of Lear, “the trick of that voice” was quietly affecting. In 1996, my family suffered my father’s death and there were traumatic deaths back in 1979 too. It seems, somehow, that Patti Smith, with her tragic tones tempered by strength, fits into that state where you’re getting beyond the known world. What comes after? Who knows? But Patti Smith is one of the few rockers who seems to really want to know.
There’s always been this love-hate relationship with the notion of revealed godhead in her songs, as though, on the one hand, the poet wants to be a god unto herself, and, on the other, feels the need to worship something beyond the human. At times, her overstated yearning can become a bit much. In “Privilege” I don’t mind it because adding Psalm 23 to the song just seems like something worth doing, if you’re going to be calling upon God to “give me something, give me reason to live.”
Me, I tend to be somewhat less hieratic in my living, though not always in my writing, so maybe that’s why I feel able to claim kin often enough with Ms. Patti. And today’s song is her in an attenuated mood. This isn’t one to rock out on and do the dirty deed, nor one to beseech your Maker to give you some kind of soul boost, it’s a song of mourning, a song of coping, a song of coming through. And I like it as a wish for the end of the season, end of the year. It’s not a “wish you were here” so much as a “wish you could transcend” sentiment. “And if there’s one thing / Could do for you / You’d be a wing / In heaven blue.”
That could be said to those she’s lost; it could be said to the many ghosts I’ve cited—even the ghosts of former selves—in these many posts; and it builds on her statement that she “was a wing / In heaven blue” herself and “soared over oceans” and “I was free.” The imagery reaches back to the Song of day 357, Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly,” another song about flying and freedom and making an effort on behalf of a spiritual connection. Smith is less heroic in her appeal here, though, and that in itself appeals; she identifies herself, in lines delivered in a characteristic nearly guttural drawl, “I was a pawn / Didn’t have a move / Didn’t have nowhere / That I could go / But I was free / I needed nobody / It was beautiful.”
That sense of getting beyond one’s debts to and need for others is part of the big finish of death, one imagines. When you can just sail like a wing into the blue. Similarly, there is a vision—seen in the eye of the dead—of “no future at all.” An uncanny, bodiless freedom, a freedom from being and from all the wanting and needing and trying and striving and shame and sorrow and joy and love that goes with the body. Not even a bird, mind you, just a wing. Just flight, and no way to land.
A wish for all our ghosts.