City Slang: “Dream Of Life” Revisited

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Quite correctly, Patti Smith will forever be considered a New York artist. Her debut Horses album is a bona-fide classic, and it was her blend of poetry, angry crooning and, lest we forget, Lenny Kaye’s guitar work that made her such an integral part of the CBGB’s punk scene, which also included bands as eclectic as the Ramones, Blondie, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Television, the Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, Mink Deville, Richard Hell, the Heartbreakers, Suicide, etc, etc.

Let’s not forget, though, that Smith spent most of the eighties and half of the nineties living in Detroit (well, St. Clair Shores actually). She fell in love with the late and much-missed MC5 / Sonic’s Rendezvous Band guitarist Fred Smith, dedicated two songs on her ’79 Wave album to him – “Dancing Barefoot” and “Frederick” – moved to Michigan and married him (conveniently not having to consider changing her name). Most of the ‘80s, she spent in semi-retirement, choosing to concentrate on raising her children. Then in ’88, she released Dream of Life.

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While officially a Patti Smith solo album, this record was really a collaboration between Patti and Fred. Sonic played all of the guitar parts on it, co-wrote the songs, and he co-produced it with Jimmy Iovine. In fact, Patti and Fred’s son Jackson once told me that Dream of Life, “really represented [Fred] as a musician more than any other work he ever did”.

Well, the MC5 and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band made some incredible music, but Jackson’s point is well taken, because this really is a fantastic piece of work. The fact that it flopped commercially is perplexing because there are songs here, like the opening “People Have the Power”, that seem like ready-made radio hits.

That’s not to say that the songs aren’t powerful; “Up There Down There” is Patti at her snarly best, and Fred’s guitar licks are fuckin’ luscious. “Where Duty Calls” is haunting and beautiful enough to make the arm hairs stand, and “The Jackson Song” is an open declaration of love for their son in the form of a lullaby that is perhaps surprisingly effective and not at all cheesy (Jackson hates it, but then who wouldn’t in his position?)

The ’96 reissue features two awesome bonus tracks, “As the Night Goes By” and “Wild Leaves”, the latter having a bit of a Kate Bush vibe. Often, bonus tracks do little to benefit an album, but these two really are bonuses.

Of course, Fred tragically passed away in ’94 and Patti moved back to New York in ’96 (Jackson still lives here, and currently plays with Amy Gore & the Valentines), but as a representation of Patti Smith’s “Detroit years”, Dream of Life is a record that we can all be proud of.

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