Patti Smith Ken Tucker

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Ken Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Patti Smith's pretensions are as important to her as feedback—both give the music the kind of kick and quirk that makes falling off a stage a transcendent experience. Her unwarranted assertions are grandiose, self-serving, impossible but noble. They hold out cosmic solutions, received philosophy, and, especially on Easter, lavish hope. Frequently they don't even fuck up the music; their profusion of exhortation, drivel, hallucination, and poetry complements the verve and, increasingly, the wit of the loud music played by the Patti Smith Group.

However all-inclusive they may seem, Smith's pretensions have never extended to matters of technique, and thematic coherence is not something you look for from her. It's tempting, therefore, to make much of the Christian imagery that runs through Easter. "Till Victory," the album's opening clarion call, is a spacey "Onward Christian Soldiers," very gung-ho on astral holy wars. At the other end is the title tune,… [which] ends with Patti Smith ascribing to herself … well, everything: "I am the seed of mystery, the veil, the thorn … I am the Prince of Peace…"

Provoking stuff for word lovers, but those who also heed the music will quickly figure out that Smith uses the New Testament in the same way she used "Gloria" on Horses—as a hunk of raw myth for her and her boys to gnash and wail over. What Smith admires about Jesus is not His teachings (she is too much the earnest blasphemer to even feign piety) but His example, His ordeal and triumph—that He was a real little scrapper, just like Patti. Thus Christ gains admission to Smith's eccentric pantheon of "Rock 'n' Roll Niggers," besides Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, and, unless my ears deceive me, Smith's grandmother. But even though "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" has pretty silly lyrics, it's also the album's best rocker, with … Smith's most concise, magnetic hook yet: the refrain "Outside of society."…

Other heathen pleasures include "Ghost Dance," an American Indian chant … that is every bit as haunting as it's meant to be. And vying for the Most Secular award are: a paean to shit, "25th Floor"; "Space Monkey," a jagged lament that closes with an act of bestiality or God knows what; and the song that may well pull Patti's gristle out of the commercial fire—"Because the Night," a ballad by Smith and Bruce Springsteen. The cavernousness of sound and sentiment is very Springsteeny, yet the song is gratifyingly Smithish, with its elliptical metaphors and refreshing s&m interpretation of Asbury Park puppy love. But Easter is not without tender moments, it just finds them in odd places. "Privilege" is a good song plucked from a garish movie that probably appeals to the group's garish romanticism….

Smith's own triumph—and the climax of the album—occurs during the segue from "Babelogue," spoken in her poet's thin keen, into "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," sung in her new deep-throated bark, when she abruptly avers, "I am an American artist and I have no guilt." This admission, delivered just as the guitars are spiraling up to the album's fiercest song, has the force of catharsis : Smith's lyrics usually make their effects by an accretion of...

(The entire section is 789 words.)