Veteran Daily News rock critic Jim Farber made a rare venture into Godbeat yesterday with a story on Patti Smith's response to criticism over her planned performance at the Vatican's Christmas concert. Although Farber bases his piece upon a report in The Guardian, he improves upon his source by adding substantial recent background on Smith's faith journey.
The lede is provocative, like Smith herself:
Patti Smith wasn’t sorry for her words then - and she isn’t sorry for her actions now.
Last week, the Godmother of Punk drew criticism from all sides after accepting the invitation of Pope Francis to sing at the Vatican’s upcoming Christmas concert.
One Italian Catholic organization labeled the star “blasphemous.” Meanwhile, some hipsters found Smith’s proposed appearance hypocritical, considering she opened her very first album, "Horses,” with the famous sneer, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine.”
On Tuesday, Smith answered her critics during a talk at the Museum of The Moving Image in New York. After being asked about the controversy by The Guardian’s Vivien Goldman, who was in the audience, the rocker said, “I like Pope Francis and I’m happy to sing for him. Anyone who would confine me to a line from 20 years ago is a fool.”
Farber then goes into rock-historian mode. By his own admission, he's been writing about music since the Ford Administration, and he's well familiar with Smith's oeuvre:
Actually, the line comes from 40 years ago, kicking off a song called “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo).” The track melded Smith’s own transgressive poetry with a cover of Van Morrison’s ‘60s hit with his band Them, “Gloria.”
Then comes the closest thing Smith offers to a mea culpa:
“I had a strong religious upbringing and the first word on my first LP is Jesus,” Smith explained. “I did a lot of thinking. I’m not against Jesus, but I was 20 and I wanted to make my own mistakes. And I didn’t want anyone dying for me. I stand behind that 20 year old girl, but I have evolved. I’ll sing to my enemy! I don’t like being pinned down and I’ll say what the f--k I want - especially at my age.” (Smith is now 67).
Granted, Smith's coarse language (which, unlike a famous slip by Francis, was clearly intentional) won't win her any awards among Catholics who value reverence. Still, as Farber goes on to observe, there are indications she's been God-haunted for a while, and more so in recent years:
The poet-rocker has often used religious imagery in her work, for a variety of purposes. She titled her most popular album, 1978’s “Easter,” and included in the disc lyrics that quote Psalm 23. On the cover, a cross was placed on the credits below each band member’s name. The last sentence of the liner notes quotes the Second Epistle to Timothy: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course..."
The legendary rocker first met the Pope last spring, shaking his hand in St. Peter’s Square. She has called Pope Francis “very interesting.”...
Recently, Smith told The Independent newspaper in the U.K. that she finds the Bible “very resonant” today.
"It has everything – creation, betrayal, lust, poetry, prophecy, sacrifice," Smith told the paper. "It doesn't really matter what religion you are or if you have no religion, those stories are still relevant to what people go through in their lives and they're also beautifully written passages."
One thing Farber neglects to note, perhaps for reasons of space, is that the topic of the Bible was raised in Smith's Independent interview because the singer had written a song for the film "Noah" on one of Pope Francis's favorite topics -- mercy.
On a side note, numerous other bits of evidence of Smith's interest in Christian faith are afloat on the Internet. Watch this remarkable clip of her giving an irony-free rendition of "You Light Up My Life" in 1979 on the children's show "Kids Are People Too." In the interview prior to her performance, she tells the host that her earliest vocational desire was to be a missionary:
More recently, the singer kicked off an interview by discussing her admiration for Pope Benedict XV. No, that's not a typo -- she really has a sort of devotion to Pope Benedict XV, the one who, as she notes, tried to prevent World War I:
And, prior to Francis's election, Smith, in her poet mode, engaged an audience in saying a prayer popularly credited to another Francis -- the saint of Assisi:
Could Smith be heading from the Ark of "Noah" to the Barque of Peter? Or is the punk poet simply stuck between rock and a bard place?
Photo by Daigo Oliva from São Paulo (originally posted to Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons