Patti Smith

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Simon Frith

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

"Wave" is a much better record than I expected, but to explain why I'll have to go back a bit.

Patti Smith's problem is that what was touching in a rock fan is obnoxious in a rock star. Her desperate faith in the cleansing spiritual power of rock 'n' roll was inspiring as long as she was on the outside. "Horses" was a gripping debut album that rekindled the rock faith of even the most jaded critics. What Patti the poet brought to her versions of "Gloria" and "Land Of A Thousand Dances" was less lyrical than emotional vision. She reminded us (in 1975, just prepunk) that rock 'n' roll was primarily a musical feeling.

Unfortunately, inevitably, once Patti had made it … she became, given her belief in rock stars as shamans, her own myth. Her music became self-indulgent, bombastic, arrogant. The declaiming poet became the haranguing priestess. Patti claimed a special access to god; she placed herself in the tradition of the oppressed vagabond (Rimbaud and all that); she wrote silly songs like "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger."

"Wave", thank the Lord (the Pope features here, rather than Haile Selassie), restores to the Patti Smith Group some sense of perspective. This is partly because Patti herself is in love and subordinates her spiritual and bohemian conceits to a new account of her muse: "for one human being to love another," she quotes Rilke, "that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks."…

The most moving track on the album is a swirling version of the Byrds' "So You Want To Be (A Rock 'n' Roll Star)"—still a song of disillusion, but still optimistic: Patti accepts at last that that's all she is, a rock 'n' roll star.

As such, especially on side 1, she isn't bad at all. "Frederick" is a love lyric, with a melodic line reminiscent of "Because The Night" but gentler, less forced, more authentically pop. "Hymn" is just that, a Sunday School lullaby … "Dancing Barefoot" is dedicated to Modigliani's mistress, to all women who sacrifice themselves to men, drawn as if addicted. "Citizen Ship" is a vagabond song, but Patti singing now like she wanted to get on board, "Revenge" is a giving-the-man-his-come-uppance-song, a big blues….

Side 2, after "So You Want To Be (A Rock 'n' Roll Star)", is less satisfactory. "Seven Ways Of Going" is the PSG at its most pretentious. Patti runs through an obscure list of "seven" images—seven seas of Galilee, seven hills of Rome, etc…. "Broken Flag" brings to the fore the hint of the hymnal that recurs throughout this record. It's a Victorian dirge that only makes sense as marching music—a song for a poppy day parade. But "Wave" is the worst track here: Patti as a self-abasing girl, fancying a man on the beach as the waves crash—the Shangri-Las did it better.

No doubt the song means something (it is the title track), just like the arty trappings … that are now a necessary part of Patti Smith as commodity. But I understand this record better as commerce than as art. The Patti Smith Group are making a hard (radio-aimed) bid to move from cult to middle of the road…. Who knows. they might just make it.

Simon Frith, "Patti: Love Conquers All," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), May 5, 1979, p. 31.

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