This two-record set distills Patti Smith’s rock & roll life into seventeen classic tracks, fourteen studio and live rarities and two basic truths: There is no revolution without toil, and no euphoria without communion.
“Piss Factory,” which opens Disc Two and is actually from 1974, was her first great ode to joy, a flat-out declaration of escape gunned by Richard Sohl’s hydraulic saloon piano and Smith’s own vengeful incantation. She was never so selfish in song again. The hopscotch on the first disc — “Frederick” (1979) to “Summer Cannibals” (1996) to “Ghost Dance” (1978) — belies the straight line Smith draws through each song to shared wisdom and ecstasy. The humanist anthem “People Have the Power,” the liberation dance “Rock N Roll Nigger” and the folk-blues om of “Beneath the Southern Cross” buck and hum with a poetry of purpose, the sweat and idealism of Smith’s Glimmer Twins, Keith Richards and William Blake.
There is a clear arc of passage in Smith’s voice, from her girlish fight of “Gloria” to the haunted maternity of her 2001 cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” This is also true on Disc Two, in the leap from the rattling chastity of the ’75 demo of “Redondo Beach” to Smith’s blackened singsong in “Boy Cried Wolf” and “Birdland,” both live from 2001. The concert tracks, in turn, honor the military force and fealty of her band, especially lifetime members guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. A 1978 “25th Floor” nails the group in full MC5 mode; Kaye and Oliver Ray’s guitars and Tony Shanahan’s bass snarl like hungry wolves in a 2001 “Dead City.”
At the end, though, Smith stands alone at the mike, in a 2002 reading, “Notes to the Future” and a hidden track of her old a cappella showpiece “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie — a pitch-perfect reflection of the child’s faith inside Smith’s prayers of fire. It feels like goodbye, too. “I leave you with these fleeting thoughts . . . Farewell, friends,” she writes in a liner note. If this is her last release, it is a bittersweet gift. It is also an ideal soundtrack for our work ahead.