Easter is Patti Smith's declaration of faith; the religion is rock 'n' roll, and Smith is the high priestess babbling in tongues. But what's meant to be a revival nearly turns into a communication breakdown by the end of side one. Smith, in a cut taken from a live performance, is chanting "Babelogue," her prose poem about transfiguration through the heat of the beat ("Over the silk of skin are scars from the stages and walls I've caressed..."). It's meant to read as a revelation, but all that comes across is Smith's freneticism. She stumbles over her own words, stutters her best line ("I am an am-m-m-American artist / and I have no guilt"), while the crowd claps faster and harder the closer to incoherency she gets. Smith is playing Joan of Arc; her audience is there to applaud the flames.
Patti Smith, through her homage a raunch et Rimbaud and her flirtation with heavy metal Rasta garble, has emerged at last as a true American artist. She has no guilt, but she has no focus either; she flings fevered images across a wide open field with all the frenzied abandon of Walt Whitman celebrating the parts of his body electric, of Jackson Pollock splatting his way to another numbered masterpiece. Her artistic success is just as random. "Because the Night," hot and urgent (co-written with Bruce Springsteen), conveys the heady promise of a one night stand better than any rock 'n' roll song I've heard ("Love is a ring on the telephone / Love is an angel disguised as lust"). But "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," lifted in equal parts from Peter Townshend and Norman Mailer, is a hit and miss; Patti's premise that she, Hendrix and Jesus Christ (a naive juxtaposition at best) are "rock niggers" because they are "outside of society" is simply old hat. The most convincing thing about the song is her blind conviction in singing it; her emotion connects when her words fail.
Musically, this is Smith's best album. What was implied on Horses is filled in on Easter, and improved. Lenny Kaye's pilfered power chords and recycled psychedelia now defy the originals in ingenuity and presence. The rhythm section is propulsive, and new keyboard player Bruce Brody plays like an eerie twin of Ray Manzarek. Indeed, Easter owes a lot to early Doors in style and substance. Like Morrison, Patti Smith is obsessed with breaking on through -- through life, through death, to heaven and back. In "Ghost Dance," a spooky evocation of an American Indian ritual, she drones "We shall live again" over and over, accompanied by rattle and wood pipe. "Easter," though, is her tour de force; it begins with a spare, majestic organ line and builds to a clanging climax of church bells and bagpipes, over which Patti intones her message of spiritual rebirth (it's addressed, obliquely, to "Isabella," who is Rimbaud's younger sister or the 13th-century French mystic and saint -- your guess). Yet Smith's religious preoccupations -- she also interjects snippets of the 23rd Psalm into "Privilege" -- are somewhat unsettling. It's as if any minute she'll come out with "I am the way and the truth and the life" over an E chord.
And in that muddleheaded messianism is Patti Smith's dilemma, the problem that shows up on her finest recording as clearly as -- in her words -- "the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore." Smith believes that rock 'n' roll is a form of communication that has the power to transform the future, and she weights her visions with dialectical baggage like "Within the context of neo rock / we must seize the veil of smoke that man calls order." People stopped believing that stuff in 1968, and for good reason. Smith, for all her babble about "fucking with the future," is really a throwback. That's why her music sounds so vital; it's got the expectant edge of bands like Detroit's MC5, who were convinced that the revolution was coming next week. Smith, all white heat and brimstone, makes you believe in rock 'n' roll, even while you realize she's talking nonsense. Like all true rock 'n' roll visionaries, Patti Smith is a tragic hero, flawed by the obsessiveness of her belief.
Copyright © Daisann McLane 1978