Patti: love conquers all
by Simon Frith
Wave is a much better record than I expected, but to explain why I'll have to go back a bit.
Patti Smith's problem is that what was touching in a rock fan is obnoxious in a rock star. Her desperate faith in the cleansing spiritual power of rock 'n' roll was inspiring as long as she was on the outside. Horses was a gripping debut album that rekindled the rock faith of even the most jaded critics. What Patti the poet brought to her versions of "Gloria" and "Land of a Thousand Dances" was less lyrical than emotional vision. She reminded us (in 1975, just pre-punk) that rock 'n' roll was primarily a musical feeling.
Unfortunately, inevitably, once Patti had made it - long term contract, rave reviews - she became, given her belief in rock stars as shamans, her own myth. Her music became self-indulgent, bombastic, arrogant. The declaiming poet became the haranguing priestess. Patti claimed a special access to god; she placed herself in the tradition of the oppressed vagabond (Rimbaud and all that); she wrote silly songs like "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger."
Wave, thank the Lord (the Pope features here, rather than Haile Selassie), restores to the Patti Smith Group some sense of perspective. This is because Patti herself is in love and subordinates her spiritual and bohemian conceits to a new account of her muse: "for one human being to love another," she quotes Rilke, "that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks."
But the most crucial component of Wave is Todd Rundgren's production. He has his own theory of rock grandeur, a technological, engineer's theory, and it's his sound rather than Patti's that dominates this LP. Her voice is mixed into ringing, echoing harmonies. Her relationship with her group is reversed. She once carried all the venom, all the rhythmic tension, while her group were just a punctuating garage band. Now they're an American rock band - double guitar breaks, synthesized sustenance - and she is an American rock singer, filling in the spaces the musicians leave.
The most moving track on the album is a swirling version of the Byrds' "So You Want To Be (a Rock 'n' Roll Star)" - still a song of disillusion, but still optimistic: Patti accepts at last that that's all she is, a rock 'n' roll star.
As such, especially on side 1, she isn't bad at all. "Frederick" is a love lyric, with a melodic line reminiscent of "Because the Night" but gentler, less forced, more authentically pop. "Hymn" is just that, a Sunday School lullaby with Lenny Kaye on autoharp and Patti sounding like a McGarrigle. "Dancing Barefoot" is dedicated to Modigliani's mistress, to all women who sacrifice themselves to men, drawn as if addicted. "Citizen Ship" is a vagabond song, but Patti singing now like she wanted to get on board. "Revenge" is a giving-the-man-his-comeuppance song, a big blues.
These last three are sound dramas, carefully layered, like all Rundgren productions, and Patti just has to take her equal place in the musical queue. The result, paradoxically, is that she has never sung better. She's developed a new croon at the bottom of her register, and a throaty wail, while still throwing out her baleful poetry-reading challenges.
Side 2, after "So You Want To Be a (Rock 'n' Roll Star)", is less satisfactory. "Seven Ways of Going" is the PSG at its most pretentious. Patti runs through an obscure list of "seven" images - seven seas of Galilee, seven hills of Rome, etc. The band improvise uneasily. "Broken Flag" brings to the fore the hint of the hymnal that recurs throughout this record. It's a Victorian dirge that only makes sense as marching music - a song for a poppy day parade. But "Wave" is the worst track here: Patti as a self-abasing girl, fancying a man on the beach as the waves crash - the Shangri-Las did it better.
No doubt the song means something (it is the title track), just like the arty trappings (the Genet quote, the cover doves) that are now a necessary part of Patti Smith as commodity. But I understand this record better as commerce than as art. The Patti Smith Group are making a hard (radio-aimed) bid to move from cult to middle of the road. "Frederick" is duly Kid Jensen's record of the week, and even I like half this album. Who knows, they might just make it.
Copyright © Melody Maker 1979