A touch of the poetess

The Patti Smith Group, Easter (Arista, 1977)


January 13, 2002


"At heart I am an American artist, and I have no guilt!" Patti Smith declares with maximum gusto at one point on her third album, and that has pretty much been the punk poetess' motto throughout her career.

At times, a little bit of guilt--or at least a modicum of self-consciousness--would have served Smith well. At her most messianic, she can be darn near insufferable. But when artistic pretensions and rock 'n' roll power are mixed in equal proportions, as on her brilliant 1975 debut "Horses" or '78's "Easter," she does her heroes proud, rivaling Keith Richards and Lou Reed for rock 'n' roll grit, and Bob Dylan, the Beats, and Rimbaud for poetic eloquence in the passionate quest for spiritual transcendence.

As the title none-too-subtly suggests, "Easter" is an album about rebirth. Yielding the biggest hit of Smith's career via her collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, "Because the Night," it represented a resurrection in two very real ways. First and foremost, it was a return to concise rock form after the sprawling experimentation of her sophomore effort, "Radio Ethiopia," an album that strived for MC5-meets-John Coltrane free-jazz electricity but mainly produced sloppy, unfocused jamming. But it was also a comeback in the more concrete sense of Dylan's return after his motorcycle accident.

Onstage in Tampa, Fla., in January 1977, touring behind "Radio Ethiopia" and desperately trying to live up to the critical hosannas she'd received for "Horses," the frenetic Smith lunged for a microphone stand and stumbled over a monitor, falling backwards off the stage some 15 feet to the concrete floor below. She cracked two vertebrae in her neck and suffered lacerations on her head that required 22 stitches, and though she was spared the unpleasant prospect of spinal surgery, she wound up spending several months in bed mending.

When she returned to the stage at New York's C.B.G.B. on Easter Sunday, Smith was a different woman--more spiritual, less self-destructive, and more willing to perform rather than shed real blood in the name of her holy crusade. (In the liner notes to "Radio Ethiopia," she had declared herself a "rock 'n' roll field marshal.") Her early anthem "Gloria" was cut from the set because she no longer felt comfortable with the cheerfully blasphemous intro, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." Said drummer Jay Dee Daugherty: "She changed. She didn't feel that way anymore."

Now, Smith offered a simple prayer: "Oh, God, give me something--a reason to live," she sang in "Privilege (Set Me Free)." In fact, she had already found two reasons that would sustain the next phase of her career. She had officially become a published poet, signing copies of her book Babel while flanked by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. And she had fallen deeply in love with former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, though she had not yet split with her current boyfriend, Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Allen Lanier. (Lanier played on "Easter," and was thanked in the liner notes along with Sonic Smith.)

Finally finding her place in the world after years as a troubled misfit, Smith chose the moment of high punk insanity to make her sanest, most focused album. As producer, she chose a slick music-business professional, Jimmy Iovine, who had engineered John Lennon's "Rock 'n' Roll" (produced by Phil Spector) and Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Iovine would later take what he learned with Smith and strike gold producing the more cartoonish punk, Joan Jett; today, he is the controversial head of Interscope Records, specializing in carefully calculated outrages such as Marilyn Manson, Eminem, and Limp Bizkit.

While some of Smith's fans at the time would cry "sellout," many who discovered her work later on hold "Easter" second only to the debut, and some even prefer it. Many of the songs had been honed in live performance for years, and they explode from the speakers with unparalled energy. From their origins as inspired amateurs, the Patti Smith Group had become a potent band, with Lenny Kaye and Ivan Krall trading sinuous guitar lines and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty propelling the tunes with machine-gun rolls.

Earmarked as the title track until Arista balked, "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" is the centerpiece of the album, and the hardest that Smith has ever rocked, outdoing even the incendiary "Gloria" and "Free Money" from the first album. The lyrics are pure Patti: grandiose, overreaching, and a little silly (held up as heroes who lived "outside of society" are Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, and Smith's grandmother), but they are vivid and inspiring all the same. They are also, of course, extremely controversial for their use of the offensive racial epithet.

For Smith, the word "nigger" means anyone who refuses to conform to society's rigid rules, living instead by their own code of conduct. That reading of the word was inspired by Norman Mailer's famous Beat-era essay, "The White Negro," as well as by a T-shirt that the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wore proclaiming himself "The Last of the White Niggers" the day that he and Smith made a pilgrimage to meet their hero, Burroughs, for the first time.

Having grown up in largely African-American neighborhoods in Chicago and South Jersey, Smith thought she knew what she was saying, but some critics accused her of ignorance at best, and racism at worst. Writing in Rolling Stone, Dave Marsh, formerly a Smith booster, charged that, "Smith doesn't understand the word's connotation, which is not outlawry but a particularly vicious kind of subjugation and humiliation that's antithetical to her motive."

The debate over when if ever the word should be used--and if so, by whom--continues today, more than two decades later. In contrast, the album's other great controversy now seems ridiculously dated: A surprising number of critics couldn't refrain from voicing their disgust over the cover photo of Smith flashing a healthy growth of hair under her left armpit. (Gilda Radner got considerable mileage out of the image while parodying Smith as "Candy Slice" on "Saturday Night Live.")

Ever the androgyne and always "High On Rebellion" (as she sings on one tune), Smith loves playing with people's preconceived notions of what is sexy or even acceptable for female artists, paving the way for everyone from Courtney Love to Macy Gray.

The rest of the album offers a dynamic overview of the band's many colors. "Ghost Dance" is Smith at her shamanistic best, leading an American Indian chant/prayer. Arranged by her old pal Tom Verlaine of Television, "We Three" is a melodramatic, '50s-tinged mini-opera. "Babelogue" is one of her famous improvised rants, and "Space Monkey" is another piece of free association that may or may not be about simian astronauts. "Till Victory" is a rousing rock anthem, "Easter" a stirring elegy, and "Because the Night" a brilliant pop single that finds Iovine paying homage to Spector with a production that could fit the Ronettes (though Smith's vocals are considerably rougher; as distinctive as Dylan or Reed's, her voice is not what anyone would ever call "beautiful").

Iovine was the connection to Springsteen, though he and Smith both shared similar Jersey upbringings. In her book of annotated lyrics, Patti Smith Complete, the singer writes that she had Bruce's unfinished demo laying around late one night while she was waiting for a call from her lover, Sonic Smith. She popped the tape in, became inspired, and wrote the lyrics in a mad rush before dawn: "Have I doubt when I'm alone/Love is a ring, the telephone/Love is an angel, disguised as lust/Here in our bed, until the morning comes... Because the night belongs to lovers."

The royalties from the resulting hit would help keep Smith afloat for more than a decade, after she dropped out of the rock scene following her next album, "Wave." But she and her bandmates were always somewhat guilty about their foray into the mainstream (especially since their previous album had included the song "Pissing in the River"). "So concise was 'Easter,' so to the point, that our natural rambling instincts weren't given enough room," Kaye told Creem magazine's Billy Altman in 1979. But that was exactly the album's charm.

On some of her other efforts, Smith's grappling with spirituality is labored, ponderous, or preachy. On "Easter," her search for a reason to live is all the more effective because it is delivered with such straightforward and compelling rock backings. She once chose a quote by another of her idols, the poet Jean Genet, to highlight her approach: "Use menace, use prayer." On "Easter," the mix of the two is perfect.

Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis writes about Rock's Great Albums every other Sunday in Showcase, alternating with Roger Ebert on the Great Movies. E-mail him at jimdero@aol.com or visit him on the web at www.jimdero.com.