Patti Smith's Ample Easter Basket

[from Circus, 1978]
by Fred Schrurers

Patti Smith's live performances have often cracked apart when she sets to rapping. But when she hauls out of a heartfelt delirium-spiel on this album's "Babelogue", on her way to meet the band's steamhammer intro to "Rock'n'Roll Nigger", she proves that she can shudder right out of her poet's skin to batter most of her competition across the ring and over the ropes.

You can forgive her usurpation of the word "nigger", which she has hardly earned the right to, and you can ignore her all-embracing and problematical aesthetic - Patti Smith is standing true to every witch-doctorate claim she's ever made and still delivering fistfuls of bloodboilingly regressive rock. For that she deserves whatever title she wants.

If this album had been as waywardly self-indulgent as Radio Ethiopia, this would be a pan. and plenty of other avid panners would be hastening to write her off - no commercial talent, a failed experiment, go back to the coffee-house. But Easter has a single, "Because the Night", that you can find on the jukebox these days. Co-authored with Bruce Springsteen, it's unblushingly, swooningly romantic. But it's just as tough, really, as "He's a Rebel" or "Free Money": Patti has not sold her soul to Clive.

It is oddly apt that she would break through with a song so steeped in the musical alluvium of her home state of Jersey. Asbury Park's Springsteen, whose nomination as "The Boss" invites a nettlesome comparison to Hoboken's Frank Sinatra (hero-worship invites rot) has had the good sense to co-write a song that makes an asset of of Patti's debt to Passaic's Shirelles. Smith was listening to the radio down in the piney woods of Pitman, and what she heard in Luther Dixon's cornily majestic production of the Shirelles was the same sound that Phil Spector magnified when he produced the Ronettes and the Crystals. When you talk Springsteen you talk Spector, and now Smith, and you have the bomp and cooing which makes enduring pop - Easter's "We Three" is the proof of that, you could swear you heard it on the radio 15 years ago. The other side of this heart-throb stuff is switchblades in the men's room, and this record's growling "25th Floor" picks up that strain where Patti's debut, Horses, had left it ("Land").

In the land of a thousand dances, in the sea of possibilities, Smith knows which ones work. If she says she trusts her guitar, that that guitar is a weapon, okay - her reorganized band is providing that assassinating rhythm that gets you high on rebellion. Even if you're only rebelling against your own cynicism - even if you're never gonna believe Smith when she says the finger of God pushed her off a stage in Miami - you can no longer accuse her of asking for handouts. Like most heroes, Smith threatens us with the claim that she's live-er than we'll ever be. As a guard against the emotional stultification that the eighties promise, that is a threat not to be scorned.

Copyright © Circus 1978

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