Weekly Sonic Musings- Patti Smith – Radio Ethiopia (1976)
If I had a time machine, one of the places I’d go is late 70’s New York, and one of the things I’d want to do is write some poetry with Patti Smith. (She's too rich and famous to do that now.) Patti Smith started out as poet and later incorporated music into her performances. Her debut Horses is an incredible album. It’s because of Horses that she’s been called the godmother of punk. It came out of full year before the first Ramones album (1976), which some people think of as the first punk album. The point is, everyone knows that Horses is fantastic, so I don’t think I need to talk about it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about her second album Radio Ethiopia.
So. Here we go. I love this album, possibly even more than Horses or some of her other more well-known albums like Easter or Waves. How to describe it. Radio Ethiopia is fucking raw. It's a person crawling around in their own puss, vomit, blood, excrement, etc., etc. In other words, it’s human. It feels bodily. Sometimes she actually sounds like she’s vomiting into the microphone, other times she can hardly breathe, or she’s rambling incoherently. There are times when she does something closer to "singing" too, but her pain remains consistent. You can’t help but feel it; and, if you were already sad or angry before you started listening, you can't help but feel a little less alone.
I feel like I read somewhere that she wrote this album right after a break up with Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m not sure if I'm remembering that correctly, but I love to imagine it, especially while listening to “Pissing In a River.” If you listen to one song on Radio Ethiopia, make it “Pissing In a River.” It’s one of the best rock songs EVER! It’s like she reaches a peak with her pain, her own darkness, and she decides to do battle with it. There’s something kind of heavy metal about the whole concept, but unlike any heavy metal song I’ve ever heard, this song makes being vulnerable sound really, really cool.
It’s true that Radio Ethiopia is less “polished” than some of her other albums, but what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in authenticity. If you have time for a second song on this album, check out the title track. Apparently, the critics complained that it was just 10 minutes of noise. Warning: it is 10 minutes of noise, but I think that’s kind of the point. She sounds like a dying cow throughout the song, and the whole time I'm thinking: "Thank god, for this woman!" It’s such a relief. I get tired of everything related to women being sexy.
It still feels rare to find an album like this, an album that celebrates a woman’s right to be ugly in public; we still live in a sexist world. It makes a big difference when you find one, though. Albums like
Radio Ethiopia make us stronger, more ready to face a world that might not always willingly embrace us as the unique, powerful people that we are. Albums like this save lives. Art saves lives. I’m laughing at myself for writing that, but it’s really what I believe, so in honor of Patti Smith, I’m leaving it.
till next time--