Patti Smith Group
Charles Olson was invited to give a reading at Berkeley in
1965. It was a time--
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 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--
Copyright © Nick Tosches 1978
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