nick tosches' review of easter

[from Creem, June 1978]

Patti Smith Group

Charles Olson was invited to give a reading at Berkeley in 1965. It was a time--a springtime--when rose incense bore a scent of spiritual exclusivity, and the universe was a young, baring breast in the adolescent hand of a New Age. The assembly, which was considerable, shifted nervously, then began to disperse with a sort of cosmic indignance as Olson, who was drunk, put aside the reading of his poems in favor of running down the wife of a friend who lived in Olson’s hometown, Gloucester, Massachusetts. “I mean, God, what a fuckin’ bag,” America’s greatest living poet bellowed into the microphone, and hunters after enlightenment closed their notebooks and made for the door.

The real poets have had the least poetic natures. In a corner of some Italianate hell, Ezra Pound still carries on about the Jews. In that celestial wheatfield beyond the last metaphor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Hank Williams share another vial of chloral hydrate and talk dully of straightening out tomorrow. Somewhere Jim Morrison hears Pamela scream, “You ruined my last two Christmases, you sonofabitch, and you’re not gonna be happy ’til you ruin this one, goddammit.” And, of course, Charles Olson, sitting to the left of Zeus, still thinks his friend’s wife is a bag.

Patti Smith--who wreaks her poetry in the New Jersey voice and ratted-hair rhythms which belong solely to those girls who, in the awful and mystic surety that there never was, is not, and never will be anything else to do, spend their dreams on violently nondescript boys who sit, like stains on the shirt of wonderment, endlessly drinking in bars with blue linoleum floors--is one of that scoundrel, immortal elite. When Smith performed at poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church in New York five years ago, the usual crowd of sissy poets were so intimidated that no poet dared follow her act (which consisted of her and Lenny Kaye on guitar), just as none of them would have dared follow Ezra Pound or Jim Morrison.

Patti Smith is the first poet born of rock’n’roll; raised on the Crystals instead of the classics. There has always been great poetry in rock’n’roll, but the best of it has been intuitive. Little Walter did not consider himself a poet, and was not known to read beyond Jive, but he must be recognized as one of the awesome men of modern verse. Smith has not yet given us anything as fine and powerful as Olson’s Maximus Poems, but she will.

Truer and surer and less uneven than her previous albums, Easter is Smith’s best work. Easter is a much better title than Rock ’N’ Roll Nigger (as Smith originally wanted the album to be called), not only because the concept of artist as nigger is silly and trite, but because this is an album of Christian obsessions, especially those of death and resurrection.

“If we die, souls arise,” Smith rejoices in “Till Victory.” In “Ghost Dance,” the music of which is mindful of the tribal sounds of East Newark, what dominates is the dire, repeated chant, “We shall live again.” The 23rd Psalm finds a place in “Privilege (Set Me Free),” a song that starts with a high-mass organ.

“Easter” itself is a song of blinding sunshine and desolation. There is a child, the desperation of hand and cunt, and the recurring and mournful “Isabella, we are dying,” followed by the no less mournful-sounding “Isabella, we are rising.” The song (and the album) culminates in a slow, fevered orgasm of Christian imagery: “The spring, the holy ground. I am the seed, of mystery. The throne, the veil. The face, of grace...I am the sword, the sound; stained, scorned, transfigured child of pain...” Then the iron bells of Easter.

In a more secular vein, there’s “Space Monkey,” a Coptic hymn to Io Rhesus Rocket, replete with group monkey sounds. “Because The Night” and “We Three” show Smith’s increasing powers as a torch singer. She has in her voice a rare quality that conveys, simultaneously, the lure of romance and the threat of feminine evil.

Karen Ann Quinlan may be the state vegetable of New Jersey, but I’m proud to call it home--because that’s where Patti Smith is from, and she’s the greatest broad poet that ever was.

Copyright © Nick Tosches 1978

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