Don’t get too carried away by the billing, my bloody valentines: The Coral Sea is most definitely a Patti Smith record. Comprising two separate live performances from London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, this summer’s CD release offers listeners and fans a double dose of Smith’s poetic elegy to the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
As a work of art it’s a hard piece to classify (is it poetry or prose?), but whatever it is, it’s certainly beautiful. The fluidity of the poet’s language coupled with her measured delivery comes from Smith’s undeniable gift for balance. She has, too, a musician’s sense for presentation. The choice to include both sets from the QEH shows seems to reflect both of these characteristics. Each disc represents a complete performance of The Coral Sea, but there is a distinct difference in mood between the two. Disc one, recorded in the summer of 2005, is far more restrained, for instance, than disc two’s performance from the fall of 2006.
One reason for this variation in aggression comes down to Mr. Shields. First things first, nobody plays guitar quite like this guy. Easily recognizable for its trademark whir and glassy sheen, his playing soars and dives like an amplified whale song, rising deflected from the depths of some hidden undersea cavern. It’s not surprising, then, that his contribution of affected tremolo guitar (remarkably consistent in tone with the sound collages of classic My Bloody Valentine material like “Lose My Breath”) so naturally fits in with the sublimity of The Coral Sea.
The protagonist of the poem is “the passenger, M”, a thinly veiled stand-in for Mapplethorpe himself. One critic, cited in the album’s press release, stipulates that the performance, “a kind of screaming requiem”, describes Mapplethorpe’s terminal illness (he died due to complications from AIDS in 1989). There is, particularly in the 2006 performance, a good deal of violent desperation that laces the work. Still, I think that it would be more accurate to describe The Coral Sea as an artist’s coming of age story. After all, the trajectory arc encompasses M’s early development, his determination to create perfect beauty, and a vainglorious struggle to reorganize the work of nature.
The performance opens with Smith’s introduction of M and proceeds through his early attempts to create in the library of his uncle’s home. As the young boy grows into a young man, his thirst for beauty only intensifies and he becomes determined to voyage to Papua New Guinea in search of a rare butterfly. In his quest, however, he is brought low and finally defeated by the awesome power of nature. In his dying throes he loses none of his resolution, however, and vows brazenly to live forever. He finally perishes beneath the stars of the Southern Cross, humbled, but somehow uplifted as well: a soul returning to the everlasting ether.
The subject matter is potent in and of itself, but the central power of these recordings, lies primarily in Smith’s voice. Being that she was very close to Mapplethorpe and had known him through his terrible illness, it’s unsurprising to find that she had long struggled with performing the material. In the liner notes she writes, “I had tried to read it publicly, but could never sustain reading the entire piece. Performing with Kevin Shields gave me an all-encompassing landscape in which I could explore the emotions that drove me to write it.”
On record, this exploration seems to have been a harrowing one. Still, The Coral Sea is by no means primal scream therapy. As I’ve mentioned, “balance” is the operative word. What’s amazing, too, is the tonal cohesion of the piece. The strain and the tension in the words is at times deeply unsettling, although Smith carries the piece from beginning to end with astonishing presence of mind. On disc two, there are times when her voice breaks into a full-on scream and in both performances there are a few slips of the tongue here and there, but her recovery is always immediate and unhesitating. As a vocal performance, the piece sounds almost like a transmission. You’ve probably heard of songwriters comparing their art to a process of reception and reorganization as opposed to outright creation. That’s the impression you get here. It’s because The Coral Sea is a haunted work, its details gathered piecemeal and unraveled with the aid of a guiding hand from some mysterious muse. It’s an assemblage of things: scenes of beauty, pain, futility and eventual transcendence.
Perhaps the most fitting elegy for an artist is another work of art. After all, what finer tribute can one give to a person who lived in the attempt to capture a perpetual beauty? As for The Coral Sea, it’s a magnificent tribute and a monumental accomplishment in the career of one of America’s truly outstanding artists. Just don’t expect any rock ‘n’ roll this time around.