Like almost any that could be named, this album could have been better. The muted and slightly tinny 80s production values aren’t a help, and replacing the keyboards with more guitar would have been an improvement by giving things more of an edge. But what is here is a pretty fine batch of songs (especially “People have the Power,” “Paths That Cross,” and “Looking for You (I Was)”). Patti’s vocals are strong and Fred “Sonic” Smith lays down some good lead guitar. Not a bad album by any means, and unfairly derided by some fans. The key to enjoying this is to allow Patti the range to make pop music, not just punk rock.
The title track is quite good (it’s indebted to Marian Anderson‘s version from He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands), as are “Radio Baghdad” and “Gandhi” (“Cash” is decent too). The rest is dreck. Most of this is just over-polished, boilerplate stuff played by a band lead by noticeably over-the-hill rockers. The songs often sound stiff, like the rote hard rock of “Stride of the Mind.” Gung Ho may never have really achieved a level of excitement, or offered anything of anthemic power, while Trampin’ does reach those heights. But this album also scrapes the bottom of the barrel of feigned significance on “Jubilee,” “My Blakean Year” and “Trespasses.” Unfortunately, the merits of a few really nice songs are lost amongst the rest of this miserable garbage.
Here is an album that has always underwhelmed me. Coming on the heels of the transcendent and Earth-shattering Horses and its worthy (if sometimes neglected) follow-up Radio Ethiopia, Easter is something of a let down. For one, Patti just doesn’t sing well. Take “Because the Night.” With stronger, more impassioned vocals it could have been something special. Then there is the pretentious and cringe-inducing stab at world music influences on “Ghost Dance.” These kinds of missteps are all over Easter. There surely are good moments too. “Babelogue/Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” is Patti at her best, and it’s one of her great moments on any album. But that song is not the norm here. Patti’s earliest work was really poetry set to music, but then, at some point, she transitioned — at least for the most part — to writing “songs” in the conventional sense. This is perhaps a subtle thing to grasp in listening to her music, but it is noticeable. Easter revels in a few too many Doors-like psychedelic blues jams and doesn’t feature enough of Patti’s righteous poetic monologues — the kind of thing that made her stand out from everyone else. In terms of writing songs, the well had run a bit dry after Radio Ethiopia (“Space Monkey,” really?) and better attempts lay ahead. The somewhat weaker material might be forgiven if Patti sang the stuff more confidently, but she doesn’t. That is the main reason this one usually just sits on my shelf collecting dust.
Assured pop/rock music suits the mature Patti Smith. After an increasingly disappointing string of albums for Columbia late in life, Banga is her strongest offering in a long, long time. It simply tries, more successfully than the tediously nostalgic Twelve, the bland Gung Ho, or the inconsistent and forced Trampin’. She is making music a little less aggressively “rocking” and more pleasantly and melodically poppy (with echoes of her late 1980s effort Dream of Life).
Frankly, Patti in her late 60s fronting raw punk rock would seem a bit out of place. It is not the sort of thing someone her age can pull off, if for no other reason than it was a technique of the past and such a thing would only appeal to listeners stuck in the past. Instead, she is crafting detailed, nuanced pop songs. Everything she does here has precedent, not necessarily in her work, but in rock and pop generally. She summons it. She guides it. She makes a case for the continued relevance of pleasant sounding rock music to open a channel with audiences.
Many of these songs are tributes, to fallen comrades or simply historical figures. “Maria” (for the late actress Maria Schneider) builds gradually to some of the most prominent electric guitar work on the whole album. The opener “Amerigo” is about Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who is the namesake of America. But the song is a meditation on how the New World has the capacity to change the European colonizers as much as they sought to conquer it. “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter)” is for Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It has touches of cabaret jazz, wedded to psychedelic guitar and stark spoken word from Smith. Bits of “Constantine’s Dream” seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to The Birthday Party‘s goth-rock staple “Junkyard.”
The best that Banga has to offer is a steady determination to keep going in the right direction. That is, it doesn’t give in to complacent comforts of later life. It doesn’t just toil away in the same way as before though. Patti is still trying to adapt to circumstance. This is her most inspiring quality. She is a shining example of how there are ways to look at the world that bend through time but keep moving toward some kind of good and better world.
Playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote an essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” (revised April 1935) in which he established that “anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although everywhere it is concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth to such persons.” He noted that these challenges are formidable even “in countries where civil liberty prevails.”
Courage Patti Smith has a certain amount of courage. Returning from retirement in the 1980s, she has had to battle detractors who claim nothing matches her brilliant 1970s output. She also has to fight the easy option of simply retiring again, and not thrusting herself into the spotlight. But there is more at play than just personal concerns. Gung Ho is political. Yet this is a kind of politics that is dangerous for those few and powerful who thrive on the suppression and obfuscation of the truth. Just putting music like this forward requires taking a few arrows, no matter what reputation Patti has in punk circles.
Keenness The young often lack the perspective to adopt a workable political position. The old often lack the tenacity and conviction to stick with what they know to be right, having caved in or lost sight of it along the way. Patti Smith has somehow managed to cut through the problems of both the young and old. She deals with both abstract and general issues on the one hand, and current and topical ones on the other hand too. Her music has a depth of knowledge behind it that sets it apart. That aspect should not be ignored. Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), built on Bernays’ Propaganda (1928) but drawing opposite judgments, establishes that even in a society of a “free press” there is a pervasive distortion of the historical record and an avoidance of certain topics inconvenient to the powerful. While it can be said her heart is in the right place, it can also be said that she is informed enough to avoid the common pitfalls of a leftist outlook—and make no mistake that hers is a leftist outlook.
Skill Patti Smith can still write a good song. Her skill with words is largely undiminished from those days when she first became known as one of rock’s greatest and most iconoclastic lyricists. With respect to writing music, her choices seem somewhat tempered. There is something of an edge lacking here, with a pervasive feeling that she is working only with stock forms. Little about the music links it to the specific content of the lyrics. Though at times, as with “Lo and Beholden,” the music rises to the words admirably.
Judgment Patti Smith is preaching to the choir. Her “comeback” albums (starting with 1988’s Dream of Life) have appealed primarily to an existing fan base. Politics were always an inherent part of Patti Smith’s music, but she rarely invested so much space to it on an album as here. It may still be too early to tell if Patti had the judgment to reveal enough to the right people. The meaning is there if one cares to look. Her fans were probably the best bet. Maybe they are most likely to open up the album booklet and see Patti’s photos of Ho Chi Minh’s jacket and typewriter—those small, seemingly insignificant items of a man who lead his impoverished, powerless people to victory over the most powerful and cruel military force on the planet—and seek the meaning behind them. And on the topic of Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, why not look further toward the economic changes since the victory—any sweatshops to be found?
Cunning There was radio play for Gung Ho, as much as could be expected. Fans knew about this album. The question remains though whether the middle ground this album inhabits places the power of its words in the right hands. It may use boilerplate rock forms that have a certain generic appeal, but they are ones that don’t seem to intrigue her fans all that much, considering so many of those fans lament the lack of harder, more classically “punk” sounds. On the other hand, new listeners probably probably wouldn’t gravitate to this as it just doesn’t sound contemporary and faddish. Yet there was a mainstream rock award nomination for “Glitter in Their Eyes.” Cunning, perhaps, is the stumbling block. For it is not as if Patti lives in a society that is not civil, or one that bans music. But navigating the realms of media empires and marketing bluster is no small task. Can the message remain in spite of unspoken censorship and plain neglect? The real test, in time, will be whether Gung Ho passed this final hurdle. It certainly weighs in the album’s favor that it is aimed at the general population. Even if Patti’s style is very literary and sophisticated, her music is not like some essay in an academic journal read by practically no one. And Patti isn’t exactly trying to vest the power in herself alone. Maybe she is familiar with Piven and Cloward’s books like Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977) and Why Americans Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want it That Way (1988).
Patti Smith was a poet first, and rock musician second. The stiff grip of the opening line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” announces that rock has changed. Soul, reggae, free jazz, euro-classical, and rock all co-exist on Horses. Patti Smith built on a new dialectic that recognized a future world of possibility without any need to destroy the past.
Patti Smith’s words encoded a mishmash of desperation and jubilation in three chord rock ‘n’ roll. After her breakthrough single “Hey Joe / Piss Factory,” the true Patti Smith Group came together. Rock critic turned rock star Lenny Kaye played guitar with a knowing yet innocent abandon. Richard Sohl, Ivan Král, and Jay Dee Daugherty rounded out the fine rhythm section. Though the minimalist rock pulsing behind the sing-speak monologues receives little fanfare, its understated beauty is what makes Horses so lovable. The music simply happens (thanks to John Cale’s production). More improvisational numbers like “Birdland” drift through a world of emotional struggles. Guest Tom Verlaine adds soaring guitar solos to “Break It Up.” New sounds of punk-reggae on “Redondo Beach” and “Kimberly” affirm that the instrumental performances were in fact highly influential. The whole band contributes to the homespun rawness that makes Horses so moving.
The Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo reveals the artist in her element–the Chelsea Hotel scene she romanticized. Patti Smith was both the ultimate New York City icon and iconoclast. Like she rolled out of bed to breath poetry. Whether redefining Them’s version of “Gloria” or Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” Smith tears through convention with the cerebral precision of William S. Burroughs. She worked from a gritty, immediate level. Nevertheless, as profound as she was, Patti Smith could still write a simple non-romantic love song like “Kimberly.” Her spoken word (spouting Rimbaud and James Brown) took a sort of pleasure in spitting on the audience as she slung revelations. Before Smith, few artists dared to infuse raw spoken word with the rudiments of rock and roll (Gil Scott-Heron, Leonard Cohen, The Last Poets, and Lou Reed being among her predecessors). A living drama unfolds with the theatrics of these performances. The hands of a master shape mere substance into the fluid forms of a new aesthetic.
Patti Smith was a feminist (despite what she says to the contrary). Her will forged her work. In a man’s man’s man’s world, Patti Smith acted independent of convention. Her gender did not solely determine her course. She wanted to be a housewife and left rock and roll for a long time (this is significant in that declining to exercise a power helps confirm vested rights and the power to control their exercise). Later, Smith came back to music. Yeah, some of the later stuff is pretentious garbage. Patti Smith still lived rock and roll, the good, the bad, and all that in between.