dave marsh's rolling stone review of easter

[from "Can Patti Smith Walk on Water?", by Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone, April 10, 1978.]

illustration for review

The hero represents the gift of love, or again, grace--the latter epitomized, for example, in Arthur's effortless raising of the sword from the rock--or in Hindu mythology, Rama's similar lifting of the bow. Both deeds indicate how heroic feats of critical importance are enacted at moments when there no longer exists a clear dividing line between will and act, or rather when, beyond all necessity to proceed according to any attitude of "intentional" motivation whatever, performer and performance are one. This occurs when the performer himself is not even conscious that what he has done is heroic. Yet it is, perhaps, just because he is not, that he alone can have achieved his task.
--Dorothy Norman
  The Hero: Myth/Image/Symbol

the face of alexander remains not solely due to sculpture but through the power and magnetism and foresight of alexander.
--Patti Smith
  "High on Rebellion"

Easter makes good on Patti Smith's biggest boast--that she is one of the great figures of Seventies rock & roll. More importantly perhaps, it focuses her mystical and musical visions in a way that makes her the most profoundly religious American popular performer since Jim Morrison. Clearly, there are bothersome contradictions between Smith's arrogance and her preachings, between her utter belief in the power of her own will and her absolute certainty that society's only salvation lies in a return to ecstatic ritual surrender. But Easter, like the rite on which it is based, can't be apprehended rationally: you either take it on faith or not at all.

Smith's last album, Radio Ethiopia, was a disaster for the noblest of reasons. By trying to create an egalitarian framework for the band, the singer buried herself, and the lyrics disappeared into the murk of a mediocre heavy-metal mix. (It is typical of Smith that this remarkable act of self-effacement was transparently willful.) On Easter, she steps out front again, and the band responds by playing with as much purpose, drive and conviction as anyone could ask. "25th Floor" makes the Patti Smith Group the most logical heir to the Velvet Underground, while "Space Monkey" suggests both the Doors (in the organ intro) and the New York Dolls (at the song's simian conclusion).

This band isn't virtuosic, mostly because it's not a group that's interested in virtuosity. It isn't punk or New Wave either; drummer Jay Dee Daugherty gives the sound a much more solid rhythmic footing than any of the bands lumped under those rubrics. (Daugherty's emergence is a key to the band's growth.) The new keyboard player, Bruce Brody, fleshes out the melodies, which are often sketchy, and gives the guitars something to grind against. Though the arrangements aren't credited, producer Jimmy Iovine must have had a lot to do with them; their interplay of tightness and spaciousness, plus a fresh sense of dynamics, are reflective of what Iovine has learned as an engineer for John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. In its way, Easter is the kind of collaborative rock & roll the Who makes with Glyn Johns, the kind the Rolling Stones once put together with Jimmy Miller. But it is far more raw than either.

Rock & roll like this creates a perfect context for Smith, who has reduced but not abandoned the ranting that too often characterizes her live shows and all but ruined much of Radio Ethiopia. The band is now the ideal instrument of her vision: the bells of "Easter" are an invocation of both the church and a Phil Spector production. Within such a structure, Patti Smith can growl like Jim Morrison ("Space Monkey"), practice her initiatory chanting ("Ghost Dance") or purr like Darlene Love ("We Three"). On the LP's best track, "Because the Night," written with Bruce Springsteen, Smith stakes out her own turf as the first female rock & roller: she doesn't owe anything to folk music, and very little to blues. Her vocal here is as big and brutal as the music; even its sweetness is nasty, its crudity lovely.

Most importantly, Easter's clear-headed approach finally allows its creator to be something more than the great female hope of rock & roll. Smith has usually been damned or praised on the terms of what people thought she represented. Now we can at least approach an understanding of her on the grounds of what she is, and what she is trying to say. She's really a visionary, Easter tells us, and these songs are the most coherent expression of that vision; they're more sensible than most of her poetry and any of her earlier songs.

Patti Smith's entire career has been a heroic adventure, a modern quest, which perhaps explains why it has often seemed so dangerously self-destructive. (There is no resurrection without death, and Smith is thinking of a particularly religious kind of heroism, more like that of Christ or the Babylonian Gilgamesh than that of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.) While other artists merely talk about apocalypse and chaos, Smith does her damnedest to create, not just represent, the actual events.

This has led her into some egregious traps, especially when her autodidacticism runs head-on into her messianic streak. Though Smith's contention that Jackson Pollock was a "nigger" (presumably in his dealings with wealthy art patrons) is amusing, her attempt to make the word respectable is foredoomed. "Rock n Roll Nigger" is an unpalatable chant because Smith doesn't understand the word's connotation, which is not outlawry but a particularly vicious kind of subjugation and humiliation that's antithetical to her motive.

But these are errors made by a true believer, perhaps the last one. Patti Smith is convinced that the music can set you free; it has certainly done so for her. Consequently, Easter's most significant song may be "Privilege (Set Me Free)," from the movie Privilege. In that film Paul Jones (Manfred Mann's first lead singer) is seen as a caged rock star, manipulated by a totalitarian establishment, the pawn of both church and state. This is a perfect allegory of the current condition of rock & roll as it becomes just another adjunct of show business; if this is how Smith sees the dilemma of the contemporary rock star, she really is the mother of punk rock.

And, of course, that's just how she sees it. Like all heroes, this woman may have misidentified the qualities by which she earned her grace. I doubt that any mortal is capable of understanding such mysteries completely. Nonetheless, the magic of Easter is undeniable. It is transcendent and fulfilled, and its radiance must be honored. No one else could have made this record--something that can't be said of most LPs--and for a special reason: no one else in rock & roll would have the nerve to connect Lou Reed, the Bible, Rimbaud, the Paiutes, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and the MC5. I don't suppose Patti Smith can walk on water. But I'd like to see her try.

Copyright © David Marsh 1977

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