Patti Smith, along with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, began work on her sixth studio album, Gone Again (1996) in 1994. Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, previously of the seminal garage band MC5, was a highly influential force on what would become Patti Smith’s first album since Dream of Life in 1988, teaching her to play acoustic guitar so she could write songs by herself and providing her with titles and concepts to develop.
The first of these songs was Summer Cannibals, the eventual single from the album, which discussed the darker side of being a rock musician. The couple drew from Fred’s Indian ancestry in order to compose a song told from the point of view of a tribe’s shaman. The song tells of an old woman coming down from the hills in order to tell her people of their history, informing them of, in times of strife, the cycle of life and the changing seasons. And thus began the potent theme of death on Gone Again, a theme inspired by the deaths of several people close to Smith.
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had died March 9th 1989, aged 42, from an AIDs-related illness …
… and Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl had died on June 3rd 1990, aged 37, from heart failure.
During the writing of Gone Again, Patti Smith was devastated yet further when on November 4th 1994, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith died suddenly from heart failure, aged just 45. The loss of her husband informs a vast majority of Gone Again but specifically the final song, Farewell Reel. Played on the acoustic guitar which her husband taught her how to play, Farewell Reel opens with the spoken message, “This little song’s for Fred; it’s G, C, D and D minor”.
Shortly after the death of her husband, her brother, Todd, also died, aged 45. Gone Again is also notable for featuring the last studio performance by Jeff Buckley, who added his voice to Beneath The Southern Cross.
Smith was also moved by the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, with whom she had sympathised. Cobain committed suicide, aged 27, on 5th April 1994. Smith didn’t know Cobain personally but told Seattle Weekly News in 2010:
“My reaction to Kurt Cobain was much more emotional. I was heartbroken when he committed suicide. I loved Nirvana. And I knew that Kurt Cobain was very fond of my husband and the MC5. We felt so badly. We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some sort of positive effect on him. Seeing Robert [Mapplethorpe] doing everything to live, and then seeing this very gifted boy kill himself was painful to factor”.
Smith’s reaction to Cobain’s death can be heard on the song About A Boy, a suitably etheral and sometimes funereal lament, the title of which is a play on Nirvana’s About A Girl, from their 1989 album Bleach.
Lyrically, About A Boy, much like many other songs on Gone Again, is spiritual and almost hymnal with lines such as “Toward another, He has gone, To breathe an air, Beyond his own, Toward a wisdom, Beyond the shelf, Toward a dream, That dreams itself”.
The verse “From the forest, from the foam, from the field, That he had, Known, Toward a river, Twice as blessed, Toward the inn of happiness” tells of Cobain’s ascendance to heaven but also refers to his hometown of Aberdeen in the US State of Washington. The forest mentioned in the verse is most likely to be Olympic National Forest in the State of Washington, whilst the river mentioned is the Wishkah River, a tributary of the Chehalis River which flows south through Washington and empties into the Chehalis at Aberdeen. Linking in with the Indian theme on Gone Again, the name “Wishkah” is an adaptation of the Chehalis Indian word ‘hwish-kahl’, meaning “stinking water”. More importantly, however, the Wishkah River has a great deal of significance in the legend of Kurt Cobain, as he lived under a bridge on the river during a period of homelessness after dropping out of high school and being thrown out of his mother’s home. The song Something In The Way from Nevermind details this time in Cobain’s life. After his death, one third of his ashes were scattered in the river. Additionally, the river gave its name to the Nirvana live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, released in 1996 and featuring live performance recorded between 1989 and 1994.
A band who had been listening to Smith’s tender tribute to Cobain was Australian band, The Go-Betweens. For their 2000 album, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Robert Forster wrote When She Sang About Angels, in part an answer song to About A Boy.
When She Sang About Angels includes the slightly sarcastic sounding riposte to Smith choosing to pay tribute to Cobain, “When she sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I thought what a shame, it wasn’t about, Tom Verlaine”. Tom Verlaine is best known as the front man of seminal New York rock band Television, most notable for their critically acclaimed and highly influential debut album Marquee Moon (1977). Verlaine was a stalwart of famous New York punk clubs such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and dated Patti Smith whilst they were both up and coming artists. Verlaine has collaborated with Smith many times over the years, most notably adding guitar to Smith’s albums Horses (1975); Easter (1978); Gone Again (1996) and later, Gung Ho (2000) and Twelve (2007).
The song’s title and lyrics “When she sang about angels, She looked at the sky …” refers to both Smith’s songs about people who have died on Gone Again and to Smith’s song Ask The Angels, the opening track on, and third single taken from, her 1976 album Radio Ethiopia.
Additionally, When She Sang About Angels includes lines such as “When she sang about the fields, She raised up her arm, As if she was pushing back the cotton on some Midwestern farm”, a reference to Smith’s powerful stage mannerisms and the imagery of fields which inhabits some of her songs. Take for example, in About A Boy where she sings, “From the field that he had known”; Ask the Angels, in which she sings “Across the country through the fields” and Birdland (Horses, 1975) in which she sings, “Him and his daddy used to sit inside, And circle the blue fields and grease the night”.
Despite the hint of sarcasm which pervades Forster’s critique of Smith, there is also a lot of tenderness expressed towards Smith in When She Sang About Angels. Take for example the refrain, “Anybody else, anybody else, but I let it go by”, absolving Smith of her various lyrical and performance tendencies and the reminiscence of the lines “Then she threw some names, Like she always did, She threw some names, she dropped some names, Like she used to when I was a kid”. Smith is known for writing songs about other people and in particular other artists. Take for example, her song Frederick (Wave, 1979), written about Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith before their marriage in 1980.
Smith would pay further tribute to Kurt Cobain on her 2007 album of cover versions, Twelve, when she covered Nirvana’s 1991 mega-hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, from the album Nevermind.
Smith’s version of Smells Like Teen Spirit strips away the thundering bombast of the original, the sound which inspired a thousand other bands and almost single-handedly invented ‘Grunge’, and delivers it with a sparse country-tinged arrangement featuring a bass guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, banjo and her voice, which much like Kurt Cobain’s, has influenced whole generations.