Listen to Patti Smith's recordings and you'll remember why some people make rock their faith of choice. Twenty years after Horses, guy-identified female rockers are commonplace, but even the best of them (Liz, P J) don't match Smith's incendiary, visionary spirit. Smith was an early punk, but unlike most punks, then and today, she was influenced by art and aspired to create it; her music has an interdisciplinary ambition and a purity of intent that makes today's scene and media-driven icons seem facile. Alchemy, Rimbaud's favorite metaphor for the creative process, applies to the songs on Horses, 1976's Radio Ethiopia, 1978's Easter, and 1979's Wave. Smith makes blasphemy holy, turns slurs into prayers. Sometimes her free-associative "babelogues" are ridiculous, but when they aren't, they're religious.
Though her one worthy heir -- Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses -- has proven rock and motherhood can coexist, Smith chose the latter over the former. Wave telegraphed a nine-year disappearance from the public eye: The mystical, romantic "Frederick" introduced a new love (her husband); a cover of "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star" suggested her first affair (with rock) had soured. When Smith re-emerged, youthful rebellion had given way to restless maturity: Musically, 1988's Dream of Life is pure AOR, with traditional song structures and a sound reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. But as critic Thom Jurek noted, its lyrics reflect numerous struggles: personal, maternal, artistic, and spiritual. The ghosts of Robert Mapplethorpe (Smith's closest friend) and his lover, Sam Wagstaff, haunt the album, and its best songs are a mix of hope and grief. Even "The Jackson Song," a soft lullaby to Smith's son, is burdened by mortality.
Sadly, death has continued to dog Smith: After Dream of Life, longtime Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl passed away; in 1994, both Smith's husband/collaborator Fred "Sonic" Smith (of MC5 legend) and her brother died within a month of each other. Though a recent Smith profile insinuated that her husband kept her talent imprisoned in domestic purgatory, Smith denies such simplistic renderings.
"I always think it's funny when people say, 'She hasn't worked in 15 years, she's retired,' " she told Jurek last February. "I did more work in the '80s in developing my writing and my skills and studying than I did in my whole life, just because I had more concentrated time. I also developed my work ethic in the '80s. And whether or not that work was published, or out in the world, doesn't constitute whether I actually did it."
Until 1995, Smith's only ventures "out in the world" this decade have been literary. In June 1992, Hanuman Books put out Wool Gathering, her first published writing since the '70s, a creative period captured -- but not recorded -- in 1994's Early Work (W.W. Norton & Co.). Focusing on motherhood and childhood, Wool Gathering is more disciplined than Smith's earlier writings, less prone to abstraction. Flat on the printed page, her words come alive when spoken (and sung), and unlike so many divas, Smith's voice has only grown stronger and more beautiful with age. From tomboy to mom, Patti Smith has always made her art into life and her life into art. A chance to hear her -- singing or speaking -- is an opportunity not to be missed.
Patti Smith gives a spoken-word performance Wed, Sept. 4, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.