||January 13, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
"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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit him on the web at www.jimdero.com.
BACK TO GREAT ALBUMS
BACK TO NEWS