Patti Smith's first album, 'Horses', was a bolt out of the blue, a lightning stab at the very top of the tree, one of the greatest albums rock has produced.
It was totally unique for its location: Patti's startling freewheel poetry, too raw, uninhibited, and spontaneous to shine in print, in its proper context, nestling up against and screwing with the primal rhythms of rock 'n' roll.
No way is her third album, Easter, that class, but then Horses isn't in a class, it stands (or, more likely, runs) alone, complete and significant.
And maybe we're going to have to start judging Patti Smith according to more conventional criteria than those with which she initially supplied us, since Easter, like its predecessor, Radio Ethiopia, treads a relatively straight rock path.
As with that last album, she's enlisted the overseeing aid of an American mainstream hard-rock producer, and again the result is a fuller, more finished but more conventional sound than the visionarily apposite nakedness that John Cale arrived at on the 1975 debut.
Radio Ethiopia was disappointing for its material, which was either too plain ("Ain't It Strange" and parts of "Poppies" excepted) or too self-indulgent (as with the unlistenable mess that was the title-track and the other parts of "Poppies"), and Easter kicks off in a hard-rock mould similar to that album with "Till Victory".
A full-toned clarion-call to the victory of liberation, it's no more than adequate, and much the same can be said of "Space Monkey", the lyrics of which (aside from a perplexing spoken section) are, for the moment, indecipherable -- I hesitate to take the title literally, but is the tune's ascent at the end supposed to suggest a rocket take-off, the panicked yelps being those of the monkey?
Tom Verlaine cops a composing credit here, but the piece has none of Television's awesome musical strangeness; a more fruitful partnership is that between Patti and Bruce Springsteen, which gives us the excellent "Because the Night".
An open, affirmative but vulnerable love-song, the lyrics are clear but still have their luxurious moments ("Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe/ Love is a banquet on which we feed . . . Love is an angel disguised as lust") which completely convince, due to the musical grandeur.
It's the first entirely successful conventional rock song that Patti Smith has created -- this doesn't carry her hallmarks of extremism or adventure, but it's so good that it doesn't matter.
Another plus is "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger", the only fast song she's left off the leash since Horses, rousingly expressing her desire to be "outside of society" with the "black sheep, whores and niggers."
"Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" was to have been the album-title; the change brings up the religious preoccupation of this record. She has always been fascinated with Biblical imagery (the Tower of Babel being her favourite tale) but whereas beforehand she claimed "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine", here she seems repeatedly to flirt with Christianity.
There's "Ghost Dance", a sinuous and inconsequential prayer, built around a shaman-like chant of "We shall live again" and including lines like "Manna from Heaven, from the most high/Food from the Father, tyee tyi".
And then there's a version of "Privilege (Set Me Free)", the London-Leander song that Paul Jones sang in Peter Watkins' movie Privilege. It works well -- all religiously circling midnight organ, dramatic drums, and epic pacing -- but it is strangely interspersed with a straight-faced intonation of the 23rd Psalm (the "valley of the shadow of death" one); clearly suggesting that the weary, spiritless singer has given her/himself to God.
What's more, Patti doesn't seem to comment on this, the only words carrying an obvious personal stamp being "I'm so young, so goddamn young" (repeated from her version of "My Generation" -- we're convinced Patti, but are you?) unless the climax is designed to suggest the protagonist, like Emily Bronte's Cathy Earnshaw, finds Heaven a torment -- "And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord for ever -- goddamn, goddamn, here I am!"
Even more bemusing is "Easter", a beautiful piece in which Patti seems to identify herself with Christ at the Resurrection.
"I am the spring, the holy ground; I am the seed of mystery, the thorn, the veil, the face of grace, the brazen image, the thief of sleep, the master of dreams, the prince of peace; I am the sword, the wound, the stain . . . the evening star, the ball of sight that bleeds, that sheds the tears of Christ dying and drying as I rise tonight . . ."
It ends the album on a note of profoundly peaceful triumph, conjuring up a glistening dewy pasture at dawn with a church-bell tolling hopefully, harmoniously, in the background.
A fascination with the poetic quality of the Christ story? Parallelling humankinds resurrection in the "victory of the 'ghost dance'"?
Patti gives perhaps two clues; one of the few discernible lines in "25th Floor/High on Rebellion", another rocker employing the now familiar vocal doubletracking is "the Sphinx, Zeus, Christ, it has always been rock, and so it is and it shall be, but in the context of here-rock we must open up our eyes and seize and break the veil of smoke which man calls order"; and "Babelogue", a typical free-form rap set not to music but to the sound of an audience baying for more, the only inspired part of which is the title, ends (I think) with the words "I am not selling myself to God".
I'm not happy about evaluating a Patti Smith album in a matter of hours,
remembering the time I took loving and learning with Horses, but I reckon
this is a distinct improvement on Radio Ethiopia, which nevertheless falls
short of the glorious heights of which she is capable.
Copyright © Chris Brazier 1978