Almost exactly 32 years ago I ditched my Chicago college graduation to fly halfway across the country, stay in a sleazy motel, and see the Patti Smith Group in LA. Four years before I had heard her transformational first album, Horses. Patti was, and is, a strong woman who believes in singing what she knows to be true, in everyday life as art, that life is infused with a deep and beautiful spirituality, that love and justice can save the world, and in always being absolutely true to herself. Right after college graduation, I moved to New York City, where she had lived, and found my own voice that would never have emerged if not for hers.
After 10 years or so away, Patti re-emerged in the 1990s and is now just about everywhere. Her bestselling 2010 book, Just Kids, won a National Book Award and she has another new one out titled Woolgathering. In 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. France named her a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2005. A movie about her, Dream of Life, was released in 2008. She is in magazines and on talk shows everywhere. And she has just released a new album of original music, Banga.
While never formally associated with women’s spirituality, Patti is, to me, nevertheless, one of its most important women. In Patti’s language, all people, all lives, all aspects of daily life can be art and sacred. While I was most taken with her devotion to art and poetry when I was young, in fact, much of her work, sung or spoken, expresses spiritual themes, though mostly through the lens of Christianity.
Art and spirituality have always been linked, especially in spiritual worldviews that celebrate nature and the physical world, creation and creativity, and the sacredness of everyday life. From the Paleolithic cave paintings with their shamanic images to the statues, stories, dances, music, and painted images of ancient Goddess religions to modern women’s spirituality with its re-emergence of artistic expressions of inner spiritual transformations, art and spirit are two expressions of the same thing. It was an easy step from that concert in LA to women’s rituals with the same dancing and feeling of freedom and joy. In fact, I remember when I went to my first large women’s circle, watching the women dance and thinking “I’ve seen this before! Oh yes, Patti…”
Now that Patti is in her 60s, her voice is still strong and, in fact, richer for the many personal losses she has had and the depth and wisdom that they have given her art. Banga is a beautiful, transcendent, unique, poetic, faithful and important album that blends these and other threads of her life. Its themes range from Columbus’s arrival in the New World to St. Francis of Assisi, to environmental devastation, to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and more. Its essence is her soul. It is less “punk” than her early work, but, to me, that is less a quieting down than an intensifying of purpose and appreciation for the wide range of human experience she is expressing. Some songs, like the title song “Banga,” are rock and roll like the old days. Others are spoken and sung poetry or quiet and melodic. It ends in children’s voices singing about “Mother Nature in the 21st century.”
If you have never heard a Patti Smith album before, it is likely to be unlike anything you have ever heard. My advice would be to think of the experience of hearing it as going into an empty room. The walls are painted white and your shadow and that of an object in the center of the room are projected onto them, moving together and blending as you approach the object. The object is unlike anything you have ever experienced so, rather than try to figure out what it is or categorize it, sit on the floor and simply be with it until it becomes a part of you. That is what hearing Banga for the first time is like. May it transform you as Patti’s music, writing, and art have transformed me. As the last line of the title song says (though I’m not quite sure what it means): Believe or explode…