Graded on a Curve:
Patti Smith Group,
Radio Ethiopia

I’ve always disliked Patti Smith. No, make that strongly disliked. Why? Because she’s pompous, pretentious, an anti-feminist, and has been quoted as saying things I consider racist. Oh, and she’s a shitty poet. And on the cover of 1979’s Wave she appears to think she’s Stevie Nicks.

But mostly I dislike her because her ego knows no bounds. In an interview with William Burroughs that came out around the time Wave was released, Smith said, “It used to be that art was unquestionably art. And I think that we need to get back to that frame, but that can only happen again by the eruption of like at least ten great people at once.” I will give you three guesses as to who Smith would put on that list.

And to make matters worse, she’s an elitist as well as an egomaniac. The woman who co-wrote “People Have the Power” also told Burroughs. “I never think that anybody should do art unless they’re a great artist. I think that people have the right to express themselves in the privacy in their own home, but I don’t think they should perpetuate it on the human race.” I like that “right to.” Presumably if people like you and I dare to display our art in the public forum, Patti will have us arrested.

But even I’ll admit she’s done some fine work. “Gloria” (let’s skip the song’s full name), “Free Money,” and “Dancing Barefoot” are great songs, and her live take on The Who’s “My Generation” proves she can be a real punk rocker when she wants. But those are songs. The only Smith album I’ll get behind is her dark horse, 1976’s Radio Ethiopia, which has two things going for it. One, it’s a bona fide rock album—its songs are more than settings for her ludicrous verse. And two, what poetic blathering there is on the LP is buried so deep in the mix I have a hard time understanding what she’s bleating about.

Radio Ethiopia was a disappointment to fans and critics alike, and you have to wonder why she released it as a follow-up to 1976’s Horses. It took either balls or stark insensibility to downplay her trademark poetry and hence sacrifice her much-vaunted position as the Lower East Side’s very own Arthur Rimbaud—if there are any references to space monkeys or the scroll of ancient lettuce on Radio Ethiopia I’ve yet to hear them. Instead she chose to record a quirky hard rock album, and I salute her for it.

Smith called the title track “the longest poem in the history of man” (apparently she’d never heard of Epic of Gilgamesh) but hyperbole on Patti’s part aside it’s great, a ten-minute, feedback heavy noise fest with a unstoppable rhythm reminiscent of the Velvet Underground at their most “Sister Ray” deranged. Patti snarls more than sings and doesn’t appear to give a shit whether you can make out what she’s singing or not—it’s the single greatest song she ever wrote, or will. And “Abyssinia”—the present day Ethiopia where Arthur Rimbaud, having abandoned poetry, took up the coffee trade and ran guns—is every bit as noisy, backed by one fucked up guitar and Richard Sohl’s organ, Smith strays into the realm of the unintelligible and no one could be happier than I am.

“Pumping (My Heart)” is a propulsive rocker with a great Sohl piano line and some fierce Lenny Kaye guitar, and once again Smith sounds like she’s got cat scratch fever. “Ain’t It Strange” is a mid-tempo number on which Smith slowly goes mad, and I’ll take the animal she becomes on this baby over the poet maudit she generally aspires to be. Strange indeed—when she’s not growling she’s speaking in tongues like a clay-eating Baptist preacher, and I’ll take a clay-eating Baptist preacher over a second-rate NYC poet any day.

“Ask the Angels” is another winner. Kinda reminds me of Television. Kaye’s razor blade guitar dominates the proceedings, and while I could do without that “thee” in the first stanza—no true punk poet would get near it—”Ask the Angels” is rock ’n’ roll down to its bones. “Pissing in the River” is seven urinals better than 1974’s “Piss Factory”—it opens with Smith singing over Sohl’s stately piano, then builds to yet another bravura performance by Kaye. The song’s series of slow builds give it its power, and the power knob is twisted up and up—by the end we’re back in the noise, and if there’s one thing I love it’s noise.

Gotta admit “Poppies” is a bore, except for Kayes’ fantastic guitar work—I get the idea it’s about a heroin addict who’s OD’d, but with lines like “One long ecstatic pure sensation restriction started excreting/Started excreting ah exhilarating bottomless pit” I can’t be sure. This is what I mean about Patti—the best way to listen to her poetry is deaf, and when she enunciates as she does on “Poppies” I put my ears on hold.

Smith’s snotty attitude towards Debbie Harry and Blondie is a matter of public record; at one point she apparently took Henry aside and informed her the town wasn’t big enough for both of them. But “Distant Fingers”—which was co-written by Blue Öyster Cult member and one-time Smith beau Allen Lanier—could be a Blondie song, so maybe there was some envy mixed in with Smith’s spite.

I’ll always find Patti Smith insufferable; I feel the same about most self-important people, especially ones prone to saying things (as she did about her 1975 debut Horses) “The album was spewed from my womb.” During a trip to London the Patti Smith Group was encouraged to attend a Sex Pistols show, where Johnny Rotten said, “And in we go to the Roundhouse the other night, see the hippie shaking the tambourine, Horses, Horses, HORSE-SHIT!” And punk rock drag queen Jayne County once took the stage at CBGB and delivered a hilarious monologue about Smith following one of Jim Morrison’s pubic hairs down the sewers of Paris. Smith may be a legend, but to many she’s a jerk and a joke. Still, as Radio Ethiopia proves, even jerks and jokes get lucky sometimes.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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