In early 1977, the Patti Smith Group was on tour opening for Bob Seger, as part of Arista Records’ ham-fisted strategy to push Smith into the mainstream. She had just released her second record, Radio Ethiopia, while Seger was touring against Night Moves. While the PSG were steadfast in their resolve to win over the crowds, they were fighting a losing battle. Lenny Kaye—Smith’s guitarist and majordomo—would later say about Radio Ethiopia, “…that wasn’t an album of songs. It was an album of fields.” Fans who paid to hear “Old Time Rock and Roll” were not ready or willing to open their minds to the Smith and her band’s mix of esoteric, ecstatic punk-flavored garage-rock, performed by a bunch of scruffy, black-wearing hoodlums led by a woman who conformed to no one’s gender expectations but her own.
At a Tampa stop in January, Patti Smith whirled into final bars of “Ain’t It Strange.” As the song reached its climax, she spun, lost her balance, tripped backward over a monitor, and fell off the stage onto the concrete floor 15 feet below. Miraculously, she did not break her neck, but she still emerged from the hospital with two cracked vertebrae, broken bones in her face, and 22 stitches to close the wounds on her head. Smith interpreted the incident as God’s response to her constant challenges (“I feel it was his way of saying, ‘You keep battering against my door and I’m gonna open that door and you’ll fall in’,” she told Melody Maker a year later); but in matters more mundane, her fall cancelled the tour and obviated any support for the struggling Radio Ethiopia.
Smith’s injuries would confine her to bed rest for weeks before she entered into intense physical therapy in lieu of spinal surgery. She took to the challenge of PT with gusto and insisted to her doctors and to anyone else who would listen that she would be ready by Easter Sunday. She even had a new poem, called “Easter,” as a representation of her return to battle.
After the commercial failure of Radio Ethiopia, there was an unspoken understanding that the next record needed to move Smith’s career forward. Smith was the first downtown artist to sign with an uptown label with her seven-album deal with Arista Records. She thought she could handle the Arista’s demands by insisting (and getting) complete creative control, but she also understood that she would lose her access to the kids she wanted to serve if she was not able to translate her vision into something for the masses. “When we started, we believed we had responsibilities that nobody else was taking on, to take this work that erupted in the ’50s and take it somewhere,” she told Circus in 1978. This was the kind of statement for which Smith would be pilloried by peers and the press, but this wasn’t just a front—she meant it.
So after working with John Cale on Horses and Jack Douglas (Cheap Trick, John Lennon) on Radio Ethiopia, she chose to work with a new producer named Jimmy Iovine, because she liked what he’d done as an engineer working with Bruce Springsteen. It was a deliberate business decision, no matter that she would later insist that the album was “more communicative. I don’t like the words accessible and commercial.” Lenny Kaye would back her up: “There was no conscious drive to sell records, that was our last thought.”
It made sense that Smith and Kaye would publicly try to disavow intent. “Ambition” was a four-letter word downtown, even though every single band that ever set foot on the CBGB’s stage hoped that it was a step up. But Smith and Kaye were sufficiently immersed in rock’n’roll history to know better. If Easter hadn’t been successful, Smith would have been dismissed as a one-hit wonder, post-punk also-rans. Even as early as Radio Ethiopia, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau noted that Patti was “caught in a classic double-bind: accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones.”
The band entered the studio in November of 1977. On the shortlist were songs that were road-tested, such as “Space Monkey,” “Privilege (Set Me Free),” and “Rock N Roll Nigger,” as well as a handful of newly written songs. “Rock N Roll Nigger” was both Smith’s original choice for the album’s title as well as for its lead-off single, which was naturally a nonstarter for the label, much to Smith’s dismay. Unfortunately, out of the material Smith had assembled for the album, it was the only song strong enough to be a single.
This was when Iovine went knocking on Bruce Springsteen’s door, asking about a certain outtake languishing in his archive. Smith was at first reluctant to even listen to the demo, wanting to write the record with her band. Iovine tried to sell her on the idea by suggesting that he loved the thought of a woman singing from a man’s point of view; Springsteen added that the song was in her key. One night, while waiting for a late-night phone call from someone she was romantically involved with, she decided to listen to the cassette, “…and the words just tumbled out of me,” she told Zig Zag later. By the time she recorded “Because the Night,” Smith already knew she had her hit single, and the rest of the album fell into place.
Smith could try as hard as she wanted to disguise or disavow her ambition, but Easter was not an accidental assemblage of material. It wasn’t an “album of fields,” it was an album of huge songs—songs that would effectively showcase the heart of the Patti Smith Group. So, yes, the album unironically opens with “Till Victory,” the kind of battle cry that made the cognoscenti roll their eyes at Smith and her band, and she doubles the cynicism by also using it as a petition to the mighty, announcing her return, and her intent: “God, do not seize me please, till victory,” Smith sings with the kind of iron-clad conviction that would make you follow her anywhere.
Even the cover concept was Smith’s twist on sex appeal; while it was probably the first major-label album cover to show a woman with unshaved armpits (which Arista tried to airbrush out), it was created with the object of selling records. After that inimitable Robert Mapplethorpe shot on the cover of Horses and the black-on-silver abstract by Judy Linn that graced Radio Ethiopia, for Easter, Smith went with Lynn Goldsmith, who had just founded the first photo agency that focused on celebrity portraiture. Smith would even tell Rolling Stone that she had masturbated to her own album cover: “I thought if I could do it as an experiment, then 15-year-old boys could do it, and that would make me very happy.”
But Smith’s version of “Because the Night” was an absolute monster of a hit. What she forged lyrically out of Springsteen’s unfinished, unwanted demo was an anthem of frank and unapologetic desire. In 1978, a woman wasn’t allowed to be an overtly sexual being in public unless she met the standards of the male gaze; if she did, there were always repercussions, and there would be constant attempts to diminish her power and/or her legitimacy. The fact that it went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was on every FM radio station, especially the ones who never played her before, was righteousness incarnate, as would be Easter’s eventual ascension to #20 on the Billboard 200.
The other love songs may not be as legendary as “Because the Night,” but their complexity is vital to the story being told on the album. The first line of “We Three”—“Every Sunday I would go down to the bar where he played guitar”—speaks absolute volumes. It is Smith’s history, it is rock’n’roll history, it is a quiet sentence whispered with a veneer of the innocence of early love, then immediately contrasted with a torch ballad, decisive and resolute, the expression of unresolved ardor, the saga of her relationships with Tom Verlaine and Allen Lanier. It’s not tragic so much tinged with the sadness of resignation, but it’s not the type of love song women had been writing.
Smith then flips the switch to “25th Floor.” This is when the woman in “Because the Night” takes out a match and lights the whole damn place on fire. “Love in my heart/The night to exploit/Twenty-five stories over Detroit,” she sings, tales of unabashed emotion in the ancient Book Cadillac Hotel in the Motor City, where she and Fred “Sonic” Smith had taken rooms. “25th Floor” then transmutates its closing ecstasy straight into “High on Rebellion,” the title of which is accurate and illustrative. It is about another important relationship, this time a treatise about Smith and her electric guitar: “…I never tire of the solitary E and I trust my guitar…” The band manifests its own chaos effortlessly behind Smith, before the exemplification of that solitary E fades out slowly.
On the subject of treatises, we come back to the literal black sheep of the album. “I haven’t fucked much with the past, but I’ve fucked plenty with the future,” Smith intones in “Babelogue,” plucked from Smith’s 1978 Babel, which firmly represents her artistic manifesto, issued with the pulsing energy of a heartbeat. “In heart I am an American artist and I have no guilt,” she cries as the music and the energy builds to a crescendo, before crashing head-on into “Rock N Roll Nigger.” The song is intensely rousing and absolutely spits fire, and as a rallying cry for those who feel like they were also “outside of society,” everything about the song is awesome except the title, which is the opposite of awesome.
Even in the ’70s, the slur was not something any reasonable person was going to feel comfortable yelling out loud, or feel comfortable standing in the middle of a large group of people yelling it out loud, even if the music and the performance are otherwise electrifying. Smith has been explicit over the years in her justification behind it: “The redefining of an archaic slang term as a badge for those contributing on the fringe of society was not favorably embraced,” she wrote in 1996. For someone as intelligent and empathetic as Patti Smith, this is the one moment in this otherwise triumphant record that just does make any sense. If, in 40 years, your attempt at the redefinition of a word that is pejorative and hurtful to a large part of society is unsuccessful, how, as an artist, do you not try something else?
The legacy of “Rock N Roll Nigger” overlaps with the Patti Smith the iconoclast. Though Smith placed the song an album that embraces and subverts the vast spectrum of rock, underneath all of Easter is Smith’s ambivalence with rock as an art form. It is insufficient. The men for whom she wrote, the women for whom she sang, the labels to whom she catered, all are miniature underneath the soul of Smith which Easter seems to capture in spite of the limits of rock’n’roll. A hint is hidden in plain sight at the end of the liner notes, a quote from the New Testament: “i have fought a good fight, i have finished my course…” are the last words of Paul the Apostle before his martyrdom. Smith may not have known that she would soon retire as “r.e.f.m.” (radio ethiopia field marshall), but the possibility was on the horizon, and it feels like she was trying to make her departure easier by leaving clues, early warnings for her fans that she was getting ready to say goodbye.