Radio Ethiopia: Tune Into Patti Smith

Into the heart of darkness with Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia…tune in, turn on and possibly drop out..

If you have been following me at all you will know how I feel about Patti. Punk Queen extraordinaire, poetess, Rimbaud in skinny jeans and smeared eyeliner. The thinking rock and roll fan’s crush, and possibly the most fun I have ever had listening to anything in my entire life. The doyenne of CBGB’s least accessible work, Radio Ethiopia was released to a harsh critical reception, all except Creem magazine, (whose arrows generally hit the mark, and was the home of the magnificent Lester Bangs, this one reviewed by Metzler), who declared “there really no way I’m gonna be anything but thrilled to my shorthairs by a Patti LP and this one’s no exception.”

Labelled self indulgent, criticized as too heavy, the mix slated as smothering Patti’s vocals and overemphasizing Lenny’s guitar, some even bewailing the fact there are no covers on the album, it was a critical panning, and not one that was deserved.

I don’t care what anyone says, Radio Ethiopia is the jewel in Patti Smith’s back catalog. I hear more jazz influences, more Miles Davis, than I do heavy metal drag. More beat-poetess hipness and patter, a certain literary confidence, a poetic magnetism compared to the more punk earlier album, Horses. In fact, I think I hear a lot of Jim Carroll, the writer and anti hero of The Basketball Diaries, and Patti’s boyfriend for a while. I learnt more than I ever wished about Jim, in her autobiography, Just Kids, when she wrote of how she picked off and raced their pubic lice in a dingy Chelsea Hotel room. Oh, what passes as entertainment for junkies…and Patti. The writer of Poppies, and Ain’t it Strange, swears up and down she never did anything stronger than hash. Ok, then, Patti…we can have it that way, if you, want. After all, she is Patti….

For a girl who never did hard drugs, she writes about them a LOT. The album drips with heroin and opium, laced with hash, driven through with speed and a rejection of society. She tells you to go Ask the Angels, and to be honest, when I first heard it, I was a bit concerned our Patti might get the chance to go ask them herself about whether or not they are “on the move.”

This album is jazzy rock and roll, a total blast, and yes, at times inaccessible. Patti doesn’t seem to care about drawing the listener in, more concerned with doing what she wants, and how she wants to do it, knowing eventually we will want it too.

The stand out tracks, the elegaic Pissing in a River; Ask the Angels, with its opening dive into a pool of death and calling out to whatever spirits were hanging around the recording studio. Poppies, a paean to smack, attempts to oust Lou Reed’s Heroin as the anthem for a nodded-out generation of punk people. Distant Fingers, a heavily Blondie influenced track, always vaguely irritates me. I want to drag my Patti back and tell her she doesn’t have to be sweet, or tuneful, or cute. She just has to keep on being Patti, socking it to the man for punk grrrrls everywhere. To be frank, I usually skip this track, the only mar on an otherwise pristine experience. I think she might have been smarting at Blondie’s status as female mascot of CBGB’s. She need not have been. Blondie ain’t a patch on Patti.

The title track appears on the second side, as long as there was ever sides in music. It is a huge loss that we don’t have an interlude anymore, we don’t have to pause and stop and flip the fucking vinyl over. It always provided a good ‘full stop’, a creative underline. A new paragraph, but here we are….Radio Ethiopia. A heavy, grinding, fuzzy headbanging journey into the heart of darkness. I never really heard it until I got some great monitor headphones and turned it up, immersing myself in this strange world. She calls out to us, in a call to arms, to prayer, an incantation, a recitation. “Deep in your brain is a lever.” …and Patti seeks to push it all the way, until something gives. She is glorious. The track is glorious.

Thing is, you have to give this album a chance to get to ya, to breathe, to immerse you. It is not instant gratification, it ain’t pretty in general, and it does ROCK hard.

So, if you are in the mood to irritate your neighbors, and you haven’t given this one a listen, it deserves being turned up loud.

She plays you out with a trip to Abyssinia, out of Ethiopia, a track that conjures up Coleridge’s laudanum dream of Kubla Khan, down Alph the sacred river to that Abyssinian maid. Coleridge was infamously woken from his opium reverie, but Patti continues the cavernous reverb echoing journey, before we emerge, wholly burnt and transformed with her, into the other side. The other side of what, you might wonder… do I. Don’t worry there is life after Radio Ethiopia.

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