Patti Smith & Kevin Shields
The Coral Sea (PASK)
In this two-disc album dedicated to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith (with My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields) provides a live rendering of Smith's 1996 book The Coral Sea. The deceased photographer took the cover shot on Smith's remarkable debut album, Horses, and was a source of artistic inspiration to her as well as her lover.
The Coral Sea album exposes all the flaws of Smith's so-called poetry. It is unique in one way. Each disc is a concert recording of the same work and simply dated (22.06.05 and 12.09.06) without any fanfare. The sparse liner notes do not go much further than noting the locations of the recordings (Queen Elizabeth Hall, London) and the memorial to Mapplethorpe.
The packaging is more artful than the work. Beautifully gathered in a lovely, folding digi-pak affair, with gorgeously impressionistic imagery (except for a distinct guitar that supposedly identifies the item as containing something to do with rock music), we have a case study in branding with no product that merits such an exquisite appearance. The book was weak enough, with sentimental language that could as easily be prose, possessing absolutely no sense of the craft of poetry whatsoever, passing off severe emotion and therapeutic meandering as though being hip was being poetic. With this album, we have two live renderings that fit into the "spoken word" genre even though there are mushy guitar sounds lurking. It sounds rather like an afternoon at Guitar Center where a hundred kids are playing 50 riffs-and you want to go home.
This album makes a poet want to go home and a musician, too, for it ruins both idioms in public performance. If this weren't a Patti Smith disc, it would be some dorm recording of stoners avoiding classes on a lunch break. It's an embarrassment. Smith was never a poet. She was worse than Jim Morrison. Both turned in cool and breakneck performances and made some real good records. But neither read much beyond French Symbolism; Smith took what the Beat Poets did and exposed all the carefully concealed flaws. Their so-called poetry books were merely sub-literate journals.
But I love this album because it's so hilarious. I have it on my shelf next to the book of the same name and laugh so hard I forget about the serious poets and the brilliant guitar players who never had the chance to have such a wonderful package represent them, let alone a real concert hall in which to negotiate their art. And then I stay home even longer in complete sorrow for the inability of spoken word and innovative guitar improvisation to be in public any longer. Coral Sea is all about posing, packaging and memorializing people and stuff that deserves far more educated, trained and practiced spontaneity. Or maybe it's all a geriatric nightmare. Perhaps, like Fred Astaire, who quit dancing when he figured he could no longer be as graceful anymore, it's time for some in the rock world to take off their dancing shoes, as it were, and be elegantly motionless.