Patti Smith

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Ken Tucker

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

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 detail and metaphor; she is not given to the self-important confessional, to say nothing of declarative sentences. But then Smith goes on to make the moment her own—denies her revelation even as she proffers it—by screwing up, intentionally. First she stutters the sentence, and then confuses it with the red-herring assertion that precedes it, "I am Moslem." The listener is left inexplicably moved and immediately plunged into the guitar wash of "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger." Some may dismiss all of this as intellectual sloppiness, but if so it is sloppiness worthy of deKooning, Neil Young, or the Three Stooges—endearing and gloriously artless, making its points by piling everything on too thickly.

All of which splendid disparity suggests that Patti Smith has outgrown her mentors to become her own rock star. Previously, she has taken solace and inspiration from the suffering and nihilism of old Niggers like Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, Artaud. Their worst influence on her music was to make all of its passion seem born out of self-induced derangement; Easter sees through this notion. In place of Horses' livid dreamscapes and Radio Ethiopia's frustrating visions of perpetual struggle against the world, the flesh, and radio programmers, Easter offers a radical, nutty optimism, banishing the unearned fatalism that mired crucial sections of the previous albums. Beneath the juggled imagery, the only "message" on Easter is that Patti Smith prevails, not with a grimace but a grin.

Ken Tucker, "Onward Heathen Soldiers," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), May 1, 1978, p. 51.

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