Patti Smith is known as the “godmother of punk,” but she always had higher goals than trying to make rock sound dangerous as the hippy era came to an end. I once almost lost a friendship because I suggested that her voice was not strong enough to sustain the passion of her angrier songs. “She’s too frail to be a punk Janis Joplin,” I said. “And too New Jersey.” Maybe that wasn’t fair, especially the part about New Jersey, but I do think she sounds better when, like Bob Dylan, she works with her vocal weaknesses, not against them. She’s sometimes called the female Bob Dylan, but Dylan is a songster whose lyrics are poetic, while Smith is a poet who also sings rock and roll. Because she’s not a natural singer, melancholy fits her tonal range, and when she goes for pretty, without erasing the edginess of her tone, she sounds downright sublime.
Smith’s political statements are typically riddled with contradictions, although early in her career she gave up the obligatory denunciation of commercialism that defined punk subculture. She once said, “Punk rock is just another word for freedom,” but her best work, including “Mercy Is,” her lullaby for director Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, is immersed in the poetic tradition of Blake and Rimbaud as well as the language of the Bible. She was raised Jehovah’s Witness, and her memoir, Just Kids, about her early days in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe, is full of references to prayer. “He had tried everything from science to voodoo, everything but prayer,” she writes about his last days. “That, at least, I could give him in abundance.”
In fact, she has a thoroughly theological frame of mind. “People talk about God abandoning us,” she said in an interview on German television. “I believe the danger isn’t that God abandons us. We abandon God. And I think that God is as we invest in him.” She went on: “We all have this opportunity and also this blessing to be magnified.” And finally: “Being magnified by the idea of God means that we are living imagination.” God for Smith is more than the power of imagination, although never less than that. She finds God in the music, we could say, which is why her work belongs more to the ritual of trance than ecstasy.
In any case, rightly ordered theological ideas are neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for great art, and several of Smith’s songs are among the great theological artifacts of our day. “Easter” (1978) is a masterpiece of lyrical lament. Smith imagines Rimbaud walking to church with his siblings on Easter Sunday, trying to convey to them his own awakening into a dark, yet hopeful destiny. When Smith tells Isabella, in Rimbaud’s voice, that “we are dying,” she pronounces the girl’s name with heroic indignation, as if only poets can straddle the space between the living and the dead. But this messianic temptation gives way to the ringing of liturgical bells as Smith turns ancient seer, chanting a heated frenzy of Christian images. “I am the sword, the wound, the stain, scorned transfigured child of Cain.” And then she intones, “Isabella, we are rising,” with such simplicity that the resurrection takes shape in sound.
Easter” is a hymn, but “Constantine’s Dream” is a theological epic. Released on Banga (2012), it begins with an homage to St. Francis and his love of animals, but while visiting the church that bears his name, Smith “feels another call from the basilica itself.” This is the call of art, and she begins thinking of Piero della Francesca, “who had stood where I stood.” In an improvised concatenation of images, she imagines him painting “The Legend of the True Cross.” Smith manages to impart how the adventure of art is not dissimilar to a great historical deed, and how Constantine is himself a servant of art, with his face lit by the radiance of the cross. The power of the brush, she seems to say, is its ability to interrogate the beauty as well as the ugliness of the conquest unleashed by Constantine’s dream. The song climaxes when she pushes herself to imagine Columbus dreaming about the “troubled king” and “the apocalyptic night” that advances in the wake of his own discoveries.
These songs are modern monuments of religious art, and so is her verse. My favorite of her poems is “Worthy the Lamb Slain for Us,” from Auguries of Innocence (2005). It’s a gruesome retort to Blake’s question, “Little lamb who made thee?” Set in a mass slaughter of diseased lambs in Britain, Smith conjures a farmer“a governed soul, broad shouldered with eyes like Blake”who loves a lamb he has named “Freedom.” When he realizes she might have hoof and mouth disease, he wonders “who bred thee?” as he is forced to rip her apart. Such waste is a sick parody of true sacrifice and a harbinger of ecological catastrophe. Why do we create just in order to destroy? We have made ourselves gods to no good end. “We did it for a beautiful name,/ freedom, baa baa baa,/ nothing you could put your finger on.” Smith lets freedom speak, even as she shows us that modern notions of freedom have nothing to say.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.