He regards his empty hand, the indifferent sea. If he were to step out upon that sea, would he be swallowed like an insect or supported like a king . . . Might he remove his slippers and walk upon the waves amongst the tiny fishes and draw from the swell a symphony of moans and hisses . . .
The world would be a dimmer place without Patti Smith, but her place in it would shine much more brightly if she ditched the rock star routine. Of all the titles Smith has assumed — poet, Bob Dylan acolyte, bandleader, shaman — “poet” has always been the one that worked best. Her mission in life is not to do lame covers of “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rider,” or try to recreate the raw excitement of her 1975 debut album, Horses, 30 years after the fact. Her mission is her poetry, and her new recording The Coral Sea is a reminder of just how commanding she can be when she steps onto a stage armed only with words.
The Coral Sea, the collection of linked prose poems Patti Smith published in 1996, was a remarkable book: a tribute to her lost friend Robert Mapplethorpe that was dreamy, angry, despairing and ecstatic all at once. Unlike the wobbly recordings that marked her mid-1990s return to performance, The Coral Sea showed the world that Smith’s muse had continued to develop during her long absence from the spotlight, burning bright with the William Blake influence that had always sustained her best writing, but with a fresh strength and focus to go with the bombast that will always be part of her work. The book was a gorgeous art-object in itself, thanks to the accompanying photographs (most of them by Mapplethorpe), but the words created the brightest images and the deepest shadows.
How should I be charged? Should I be charged for wanting so much, for wanting so much bounty, for wanting so much beauty? For re-arranging eyes? For being one with nothing?”
The Coral Sea captures two live performances by Smith, accompanied by Kevin Shields, the man behind My Bloody Valentine’s dense wall of sound. His settings might be called aggressive ambient music: tidal washes of noise that challenge and enhance Smith’s readings without overwhelming them. The second performance sounds more aggressive and assured, but both offer enough nuances and fresh discoveries to repay close attention. Simply put, The Coral Sea is Patti Smith’s most powerful recording since Horses.
I’m not dismissing her other 1970s band albums — there are good and even great things to be found on all of them. But Horses/Horses, the release that paired her seminal debut album with a live 2005 recreation, sounded forced and unconvincing. Comparing the two versions, it was hard to decide if Smith and her bandmates had grown past the material or diminished to the point that they could no longer reach it.
There are no such doubts with The Coral Sea. Like M, searching for the Southern Cross in the night sky, Patti Smith steps out onto the waters of her inspiration and goes exploring, held up by the sheer force of her artistry.
By a happy coincidence, I bought The Coral Sea during a time when I had Songs for Drella, Lou Reed and John Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol, on more-or-less continuous play on my car stereo. Both records are passionate, loving tributes to artists I had considered to be lightweights, if not outright phonies; both records are collaborations that tower above the recent individual works of their co-creators; both records, produced by consummately serious artists, forced me to reconsider my opinion of two men I’d thought of as fundamentally unserious.
Oh yes — both records are also wonderful, captivating, multilayered works that demand and repay multiple listenings. So to all involved I say, thank you for the challenge.