Waiting to open Your ninety-eight wounds

This is about music.

This is about being a teenager and being so sure that you are the only person ever to have felt the things you do, until the right album falls into your hands and you have to listen to it over and over because someone else just said it, and said it better and now you’re not alone any more.

This is about driving and flipping through the radio and finding a bunch of crap until the right song comes on and you would never have expected it, but there’s the exact thing you needed to hear at that moment.

This is about not really being able to dance, but then something grabs you and you’re moving in ways that feel so good you never want this to end, your body taken over by someone’s art, turned into a living expression of everything you thought was locked up safe in your stillness.

This is about years and decades passing, and putting that same damn album on and fuck me, but someone else just said it and said it better and now you’re not alone any more.

Everyone know this.  Everyone has these experiences with pop songs, with obscure shit even the current crop of hipsters don’t listen to, with songs that were recorded before they were born, with songs they can’t admit to their friends they like, and with songs that were written with an entirely different meaning in mind, but which have taken on a personal totemic status apart from that.

Patti Smith’s album Easter is very slightly older than I am.  If current music history is to be believed, it will last much longer than I will.  Interesting question, there, since recorded music – particularly rock – is much newer than forms of art such as literature and painting, and so has not had to stand up against the centuries that Shakespeare or DaVinci have weathered.  I’m not going to be around to see how that question shakes out, so I’ll leave it alone.

The important thing to me is that I have this album, and that I can throw it on at home, or in its CD format in my car and it always works.  If I’m feeling low, it can raise me back up, and if I’m feeling powerful and joyous it can magnify me.  If I’m tired it will energize me, and if I’m energetic it will channel my excess energy into singing and dancing.  Why does this particular album work so well?

Half of it is the music.  I grew up on a mixture of styles, and still enjoy quite a range, but rock has always been in the mix.  The opening of “‘Till Victory”, the first track, hits raw and hard and shakes your bones if they’re wired to respond to instruments plugged in, electrified, and played with a heavy hand.  When Patti says I trust my guitar . . .  on “25th Floor” she isn’t just saying she has a decent axe, she’s saying that guitar is as much a part of her as her arm or her heart is, and she knows she can make it tell us everything.  Throughout the album, there is music that shakes me hard, soothes me, and pushes blood faster and hotter through my veins until the final track (“Easter”) eases me into a peaceful trance state.

The other half is the lyrics.  Despite what your high school English teachers may have told you, the point of poetry is not to figure out what it means; the point is to feel it match things inside yourself as it washes over you and fills the gaps the mundane world has failed to recognize.  Poetry, when set to music and shouted, moaned, growled, and whispered, pleaded and declared, screamed and murmured, is lent power that the printed page envies.  This is the power that, as a poet and a musician in equal measures, Patti can offer me through her recordings.

At this point, the only way to show what I mean is to drop the needle and shake and scream and roll on the floor and gasp until the grooves run out and I am glowing with pain and joy.  Obviously, I can’t do that here.  If you could watch me, maybe it would make sense, or maybe you would wonder why I like this album so much and write me off as crazy.  I could just print the entire lyrics, but without the music you’d only get half of it.  My love of this particular album really only makes sense if you experience it as a whole, and then maybe only if you’re me.  I’m foolish enough to try and explain further, though.

1) ‘Till Victory  As I said, this opens the experience and hits hard.  Take Arm, Take Aim, Be Without Shame!  As a companion piece, try PJ Harvey’s “Victory” from her first album, Dry.  I have nothing to back this up but I swear to all that is filthy and beautiful Harvey took direct inspiration from this song.  This is the anthem that fills me up with energy, then has a soft spot in the middle (And you will see us coming, v-formation, through the sky) that allows just enough calm before rising back up again to pound yet more energy into me and straighten my spine.  I can now face the world.

2) Space Monkey  There’s a section in this that sounds orgasmic.  Otherwise, it sounds like late-psychedelic music with its electronic organ.  Am I listening to some sort of statement on the excitement of the space age (we sent chimps first, but we’re pretty well monkeys too, after all)?  The dates don’t match up, since we’d already set foot on the moon about ten years earlier, but I like the way this all matches in my own mind.  That dream of getting free of my planet?  Yes.  I know I was just saying the best poetry doesn’t have to be “about” anything, and that’s true.  But it’s also true to me that Space is a good thing to reach for when I need an image.  It’s mystery, exploration, depths that you can never see or fathom.  And I had to check the lyrics, but that orgasmic sounding part I so love to sing along to is the word Up over and over.  Even better.

3) Because The Night Starting off sweet, with piano and a gentle flow of words that turns quicker and deeper, and then the drums hit and you just know that this is why you even bother with sex at all.  And then there’s a gentle moment again, but then there’s more and MORE, and then forgive, the yearning burning.  And then it peaks and it’s all over and Yes.

4)  Ghost Dance  I admit, I often skip this one.  When I do listen all the way through, though, I sway and then toward the end I get it and sway until I could fall.

5) Babelogue  I don’t fuck much with the past but I fuck plenty with the future!  and it goes on until Spare the child and spoil the rod, I have not sold myself to God!  I love her voice here.  I love everything in it, and I wish all of us could feel something – anything – so much that we could speak with such conviction.  But then the music comes up around that voice and let’s shake those bones out harder again . . .

6)  Rock N Roll Nigger  Hi, my name is Sanguine and I fucking love this song even though I have a lot of trouble singing along.  After the Babelogue, the music comes up and you feel as if Patti has just taken a single deep breath between her shout of God and her next line: Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore.  And YEAH!  The music is rough and dissonant, Patti is shouting-singing her words as if she’s just gargled some whiskey and spat it in your face, and I am absolutely going to growl about Baby being a whore because I AM baby and if you dare call me a whore like it’s a bad thing I will spit in your face too.  But then, oh, damn, I was raised not to use language like that.  I wasn’t given an “except when you are singing drunkenly in your house alone” clause, either.  Okay, Patti, you DID include the liner notes telling us all what you meant, but I’m still stuck.  Maybe that’s the point.  After twenty years with this album my lefty upbringing may be keeping me away from really getting those liner notes, or maybe this song just hasn’t aged well.  I wish I had something clever or insightful to add here, but that’s it.

7)  Privilege (Set Me Free)  The organ starts up, eerie and mournful, and I’m in church, but then I look closer and the candles are all black and Christ on His cross isn’t suffering for my pain, but showing it to me, magnified, writhing and letting me know there’s ecstasy in it if I can take the thorn and lash and learn . . . and not only is that real blood in the chalice, it might be my own.  This is a religious song, but it’s not the safe, tax-free, whitewashed-steeple religion others feel safe in.  The days of Love and Torment, The nights of Rock and Roll.  And then with the wish for energy, there is rock, and now it’s time to cry out in honor and reverence to pain and the capacity for it and the need for what’s beyond: My body is aching/Don’t want sympathy/Come on, come and love me/Come on, set me free.  But before my spine can snap and my hips shake loose from their joints, we’re in church again.  The organ is deeper, somehow, having the pain and exultation that came before staining it as we hear the 23rd Psalm.  In this context, it means more than it ever has in a “real” church to me.  Thou art with me, and now it’s going to rock again – most of you probably left while the first side was playing out, to avoid the sheer madness that come on after I flipped the record, and that’s fine, because this right here  – Hey Lord, I’m waiting for You/Oh, God, I’m waiting for You/Waiting to open your ninety-eight wounds/And be Thee, be Thee  (but I always hear bleed, bleed, bleed, bleed.  And I’m sticking to it.)   This is what it’s about; this is where Christ goes from being that cute Jewish boy I was checking out because he has a nice smile to LUST and now I want to tear into that bare chest and make myself slick with blood all the way down and now I’m taken over and I don’t care if it’s music or joy or pain or love or animal desire and then – only then – the calm of the organ comes back to tie it all up as the Psalm ends.  And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever, Ah, damn, Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn, Here I am!  And I’m spent.  (And as a side note, this is why on the odd occasion I do go to church it’s really hard for me to finish that Psalm off with an “Amen”.  It somehow seems weak now.)

8)  We Three  Every single time I am in any kind of love or sex complication involving more than two people, this is it right here.  There’s a montage of me and whoever else might be involved playing in my head as I sing, only we’re somehow living in a much cooler more bohemian world that involves us all having nothing to do but stride along dirty streets late at night under sickly streetlights and drink straight from questionable bottles and live in communal housing with our art and poetry scrawled directly onto the walls.  We all love and hurt in equal measure, but please stand back now and let time tell.  And I don’t really live there, I just see it and remember that no matter how it feels to me, it’s going to be much more mundane in real life.  So I can stand back.

9)  25th Floor/High on Rebellion  I need this to follow “We Three”.  I was kind of sad, but whatever’s going on in my triangle montage, I’m leaving it there as I go off to a dirty club and dance with strangers.  This is a filthy city, but I’m filthy enough to see the beauty and look at me I am laughing. I am laughing.  Go ahead, show me all that trash and decay.  See if it stops me from dancing.

10)  Easter  I should be worn out after that night at the club and all the substances I consumed and all the strangers I danced with.  Instead, I wake at dawn and everything is more clear, more peaceful.  This is slow, this is a chant, this is an incantation, and this is exactly how it feels when I push myself too hard physically, emotionally, but still have something left that tells me my life is beautiful and good.  Bells punctuate the dawn in my head and give me a steady rhythm to follow as I put it all back together.  I glow and breathe as I rise back up, stronger and better once more for all my ecstasy and despair, sorrow and lust, sacredness and profanity.  I rend, I end, I return.

Writing about music may well be an exercise in futility.  Trying to explain this album, and why I love it so much I’m convinced I’d be less for never having heard it might not translate to anyone who doesn’t already feel the same.

This isn’t really about this album, though, or about me listening to it as I shake and undulate and scream and gasp along with it.  This is about the need for music that does the same to you, and I hope everyone has at least one song they can pull out in any state or at any time and get the same fulfillment.  You might not understand mine, I might not understand yours, but as long as we have them we are better for it.  Any poet or musician that can offer this to at least one other person has earned their title.  Thank you all for enriching our lives.

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