I know that Patti Smith is a polarizing figure, but I had no idea how divisive she can be until I went home to visit my parents last weekend.
I’ll often call my parents when I’m getting ready to do a review to get their thoughts and capture their memories of records that hit the airwaves before I was born. Patti Smith had been on my shortlist for some time and I’d started listening to Horses and Radio Ethiopia during my stay in Sweden. Usually I visit my parents at the tail end of a vacation, but if you read my erotic blog, you know that I had already set the final days aside for l’amour, so I flew down to Nice the following weekend to bond with mom and dad.
It was Saturday night and we were hanging out in the living room after dinner, chatting away, when I said, “Hey, I’ve got a Patti Smith review coming up. Thoughts?”
The entire room seemed to go dark. The color vanished from the faces of both parents. The silence that descended on the room felt like Monty Python’s 20-ton weight.
“What the fuck?” I said, by way of ferreting out an explanation.
My father took a deep breath and said, “The biggest fight of our life started with Patti Smith.”
“Why? What happened?”
My mother interrupted in French, “Parce que ton père était un con insensible.”
My dad managed to understand the keyword. “Hey, it’s been forty years and you’re still calling me an asshole over this?”
My mother responded with venom, “Va te faire foutre.”
Dad was about to tell her to go fuck herself right back but I cut him off at the pass. “Stop this shit! Both of you! Just tell me what the fuck happened!”
“We had a disagreement over the . . . artistic value of Patti Smith,” my father explained, diplomatically. My mother was about to launch another assault, but I stood up and said, “You’ll get your turn! Shit! You’re supposed to be the parents! I’m the kid! I shouldn’t have to make you behave!” I took a deep breath. “Maman, have a drink. Dad, go on.”
My dad started, stopped, stuttered and finally spat out what precipitated the crisis: “I thought she was weird.”
My mother then launched into a tirade of foul French slang that even I couldn’t keep up with. I raised my hand for silence and she lit a cigarette, huffing and puffing as I interrogated my insensitive father.
“You thought Patti Smith was weird? What happened to all that 60’s enlightenment, that increased tolerance, that ‘anything goes’ philosophy? How could anybody seem weird to an ex-hippie?”
“Maybe ‘weird’ was the wrong word to use.” My mother said “No shit” in English and I silenced her with an evil eye.
“Go on, Dad.”
He had the look of a third-rate hood afraid to rat out the boss but plunged forward anyway. “We saw her on Saturday Night Live and I just couldn’t believe how shitty she was. She couldn’t sing worth shit, she dressed like a man and she was as ugly as fuck. I thought she was a phony trying to pass herself off as an artist, messing with one of the classics and the whole thing just pissed me off. So I said so.” He paused. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
My mother exploded with a barrage of invective, and in all the cacophony that followed, one of her outbursts stood out and crystallized the issue for me. “If she had looked like Debbie Harry you would have felt differently.”
“Sounds like Patti Smith uncovered some latent sexism in you, Dad,” I observed.
My mother shouted “Yes!” My dad knew I’d caught him red-handed and he fessed up. “Yeah, I think I was experiencing my own conservative backlash, I’ll admit.” He paused. “We worked it out, though, didn’t we, Nique?”
Maman tsked and said, “Yes, you gave in after I wouldn’t let you fuck me for a month!”
You’ll find the phrase “beyond gender” in the liner notes for Horses, a concept that makes human beings very, very uncomfortable. Our expectations concerning gender are deeply rooted in the mating ritual, centuries of gender separation and eons of cultural expectations about the roles of men and women. Despite some legal progress in First World countries, the majority of people in the world today fear and despise homosexuals, especially homosexuals who dabble in the fashion norms and behaviors of the opposite gender. Transgender types remain on the outer fringes of all societies, even in places where they have legal protection. People like men to be men and women to be women, based on deeply rooted cultural definitions and the repressive strictures of every major religion.
I experienced the issue of gender expectations just last month when I reposted pictures of me on Twitter, some showing me with long hair and a couple with me in the short do I adopted this year to survive Paris summers. The men exclusively “favorited” my long-lock pictures, while the women clearly favored the short look. On one of my short-hair shots, one guy commented “I don’t think so,” while a woman commenting on the same pic said, “You are incredibly beautiful.” Somehow cutting my hair altered perceptions of my sexuality, making me less “feminine-looking,” and therefore less attractive to men and perhaps less threatening to women.
I have also noticed that since I cut my hair, I get far less attention from men, especially when I go clubbing dressed in a full leather outfit. It’s like they look at me now and assume I’m a butch lesbian, and when they encounter me, they kind of tiptoe away. A woman whose appearance contains too many echoes of male style and fashion is intimidating and off-putting.
Unlike me, Patti Smith is “sexually normal” and doesn’t swing from both sides of the plate. As she explains it, “I always enjoyed doing transgender songs. That’s something I learned from Joan Baez, who often sang songs that had a male point of view. No, my work does not reflect my sexual preferences, it reflects the fact that I feel total freedom as an artist. On Horses, that’s why the sleevenotes feature that statement about being ‘beyond gender’. By that, I meant that as an artist, I can take any position, any voice, that I want.”
She must have known that such a stance would frighten people and piss them off. It’s one of the reasons I have always admired Patti Smith: she’s got balls, metaphorical balls.
Horses presents challenges to the listener beyond the gender-bending artistic stance. When she recorded it, she was a poet first and a musician second; Horses consists more of poetry set to music than integrated poetry and music like Bob Dylan’s work. You can sing along to “Desolation Row” (though I don’t know why anyone would want to), but you can’t sing along to “Birdland.” Patti Smith brought the poetry slam into the recording studio, and while that development did not transform legions of poets into recording artists, it demonstrated new expressive possibilities that later artists like Ani DiFranco and Mary Lambert would use to their advantage.
Horses is a one-of-a-kind experience, a remarkable work by a very courageous woman. It is not background music but music that demands that you sit and listen carefully. Patti’s voice takes some getting used to, but she is always expressive, often powerful, and at times almost lovely. I fully endorse my mother’s observation: if Patti Smith had been eye candy, her work would have received greater acceptance. On the other hand, if she had been born a natural beauty, she would have had layers of expectations to deal with that might have distorted the beautiful person inside.
Horses opens with “Gloria,” one of the greatest covers ever conceived. Most covers are pedestrian remakes of songs that an artist falls in love with but never really makes it his or her own. Notable exceptions include The Beatles’ version of “Money,” where John, Paul and George transform Barrett Strong’s street-smart cynical view of life into a Dionysian tribute to the scintillating pleasure of wallowing in dough; and nearly anything Billie Holiday touched when she was on her game. But both The Beatles and Billie took the songs as they were and enhanced the existing structure with new meaning through different phrasing; Patti Smith did a full-scale reconstruction with her version of “Gloria,” deconstructing the original and surrounding it with a poem (“In Excelsis Dio”) about individual liberation from cultural norms.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” is the line that opens and closes the poem. Patti uses this sacrilegious break from tradition to emphasize that she alone is responsible for her sins, her choices and her existence: “People say ‘beware,’ but I don’t care/The words are just rules and regulations to me.” She takes pride in this stance (as would Sartre and Camus) as she walks into a party where she imposes her credo (“I’m movin’ in this atmosphere, well, anything’s allowed”). Obviously the other party-goers are more conventional, leaving her in a state of existential boredom until . . . she spots Gloria:
And I go to this here party and I just get bored
Until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing
Humpin’ on the parking meter, leanin’ on the parking meter
Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling and then I’m gonna make her mine
Ooh, I’ll put my spell on her
Here she comes, walkin’ down the street
Here she comes, comin’ through my door
Here she comes, crawlin’ up my stair
Here she comes, waltzin’ through the hall
In a pretty red dress
And oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna uh, unh, make her mine
The “uh-unh” onomatopoeia is frigging inspired, both from a metrical standpoint and as a vivid expression of untethered lust. The clock strikes midnight, the witching hour when we women seek fulfillment in the dark arts, providing further confirmation that she is free from “rules and regulations.” She is primed to violate taboos and “take the big plunge”:
And oh, she was so good and oh, she was so fine
And I’m gonna tell the world that I just uh, unh, made her mine
And I said darling, tell me your name, she told me her name
She whispered to me, she told me her name
And her name is, and her name is, and her name is, and her name is
Memories of the experience with Gloria simmer just below the surface as she visits a stadium where “twenty thousand girls called their names out to me” but she has no interest in them. Her eyes wander to “the big tower clock,” an ironic phallic symbol that reminds her of the experience with Gloria at the witching hour. After reliving her uh-unhs with Gloria, she hears the clock tower pealing in celebration, a sign that the choice she made to follow her passions and ignore the taboos was the best possible choice she could have made:
And the tower bells chime, ding dong they chime
They’re singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”
The musical arrangement supports the structure by modulating speed and intensity in sync with the poetic rhythm. The spare opening of piano, bass and Patti’s introspective vocal opens up as soon as she makes her declaration of independence, gathering steam and increasing in both speed and intensity as the moment when Gloria approaches, peaking on the famous chorus. After a feint that sounds like the band is going to ease up, they resume and even amplify the intensity as Patti starts to conjure up images of the Gloria experience. The final lines are wickedly delivered over a collapsing tempo, a collapse that ends when Patti gives us the vocal version of a wink in the way she phrases “but not mine,” giving the band the cue to let it fucking rip. “Gloria” is a multiple orgasm set to music, a glorious (pun intended) statement of individual liberation and a subtle reminder that yes, we still burn witches to this day, metaphorically speaking.
I should note that my interpretation is very, very different from one I read on NPR, where the guy who wrote the review insisted that Patti was playing the role of a man in “Gloria,” a man relishing in his depravity. I could always be wrong, but then again, perhaps the reviewer missed the “beyond gender” tagline. If I’m correct, it confirms my perception of white American liberals as guilt-ridden people who overcomplicate the issues because then they don’t have to do a damn thing.
In “Redondo Beach,” Patti highlights the very human tendency to call up disaster movies in our heads when we’re feeling guilty or insecure about something. In this case, she’s recalling an incident when she and her sister got into a spat at the Chelsea Hotel and her sister left her behind without a word. Patti imagines her sister “washed up on Redondo Beach,” of all places, an environment as far removed from the literary reputation of The Chelsea as one could imagine: a Southern California paradise of surfers, beach volleyball and tanned wannabe starlets. Over a reggae beat, Patti works with incongruous images to paint a surrealist picture:
Down by the ocean, it was so dismal
Women all standing with shock on their faces
Sad description, oh I was looking for you
Everyone was singing, girl is washed up
On Redondo beach and everyone is so sad
I was looking for you, are you gone, gone?
The reggae background enhances the incongruity and is worth listening to all by itself, especially Ivan Kral’s melodic, laid-back bass runs. I have to say I don’t really care for Patti’s vocal approach on this track, which comes across as a bit too mopey.
“Birdland” is described by Patti as her “greatest experience, as performer, on Horses.” The poetry is an improvisation inspired by a segment from Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams, a memoir of his father, psychologist Wilhelm Reich. In the segment, the young Reich imagines his dead father coming to get him and take him away in a black spaceship. The progressive refrain of “you are not human,” “I am not human,” “we are not human” establishes Patti’s core theme of feeling like a stranger in a strange land: “That’s really talking about myself. From very early on in my childhood—four, five years old—I felt alien to the human race. I felt very comfortable with thinking I was from another planet, because I felt disconnected—I was very tall and skinny, and I didn’t look like anybody else, I didn’t even look like any member of my family.” The feeling of being different is such a common human experience, shared by both the artist and the socially repressed, that it’s a wonder that any of us feel part of the human race; in one sense, “Birdland” is about our unity in feeling alien to others and to ourselves. The stream of consciousness that forms “Birdland” is not as random as it may first appear; the color black dominates, both as the obvious symbol of death but also a symbol of rising hope and rebirth in the images of the black ship. That hope morphs into hope through defiance in the “animation sequence”:
He’s gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation
It’s all gonna split his skull
It’s gonna come out like a black bouquet shining
Like a fist that’s gonna shoot them up
Like light, like Mohammed Boxer
Take them up up up up up up
The symbol of “Birdland” itself has multiple meanings, beginning with young Reich’s sad discovery that the alien ship coming to his rescue turned out to be a flock of ravens. Patti allows that image to stand, but then imbues the young boy with the power to change it in the animation sequence: “I am helium raven and this movie is mine.” In that sense, “Birdland” is a place where we choose to accept reality or to change it. The obvious connection is to the famous jazz club, named in honor of a deified black musician whose music seemed to come from another world. While the poetry lacks the discipline of some of her other works, the intent was to improvise, just like Charlie Parker playing in the early morning hours at Minton’s. As it is, “Birdland” is a compelling, rich improvisation and Patti’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing.
“Free Money” gives Patti the opportunity to create a less gruesome fantasy in the form of winning the big lottery jackpot. The music opens with a melancholy pattern played on piano, but as the dream takes hold, the entire arrangement shifts to the speed and frantic drum rolls of high-speed punk. The insistence on remaining in a minor key makes a sad contrast with the dreams of unimaginable wealth . . . which I believe is the point. People who believe that winning the lottery will solve all their problems are as naïve as children who believe that a fat old guy really does squeeze his way down chimneys every Christmas.
One of the more popular songs on Horses is “Kimberly,” a tale of big sister getting acquainted with the newborn little sister. Although I’ve never had a sibling, I had friends who did, and I don’t know any who did not experience seriously mixed feelings about the addition to the family. Kids aren’t half as dumb as adults think they are, and when an adult tries to make the “you’re going to have a sister or a brother to play with” pitch, children instantly divine that something is up. Patti captures all the conflicting feelings that come with the experience, but the existential resolution is both touching and oh, so human:
Oh baby, I remember when you were born
It was dawn and the storm settled in my belly
And I rolled in the grass and I spit out the gas
And I lit a match and the void went flash
And the sky split and the planets hit
Balls of jade dropped and existence stopped
Stopped, stop, stop
Little sister, the sky is falling
I don’t mind, I don’t mind
Little sister, the fates are calling on you
I was goin’ crazy, so crazy, I knew
I could break through with you
So, with one hand I rocked you
And with one heart I reached for you
That bond was further reinforced when a curious incident happened: “We lived across the street from an old abandoned barn that got hit by lightning shortly after Kimberly was born. I went outside and I was holding her, watching this barn in flames. Hundreds of bats lived in it, and you could hear them screeching, and see bats and owls and buzzards flying out.”
So, I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violet, violent sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me
Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as that lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack
What vivid imagery! All turns out for the best, and Patti is no longer a “misplaced Joan of Arc” but a good, loving sister:
The palm trees fall into the sea
It doesn’t matter much to me
As long as you’re safe, Kimberly
And I can gaze deep into your starry eyes, baby
Looking deep in your eyes, baby
Looking deep in your eyes, baby
Looking deep in your eyes, baby
Into your starry eyes, oh
Patti slips into slurry baby talk on the fade, in complete contrast to her hard-ass punk poet persona. While her approach to music and poetry may seem unconventional to the casual listener, this is a woman who, despite her feeling that she doesn’t belong here, is far more human than she might like to admit. There are even moments in “Kimberly” where her voice takes on an unusually sweet beauty, another unexpected delight of the song.
“Break It Up” was inspired by a dream Patti had about Jim Morrison, where she saw him half-encased in marble in his role as dead rock icon. If so, the thread to that inspiration is very thin, as the lyrics contain no reference to Morrison, marble or death; what I hear is the story of an encounter with the opposite sex where the desire to become one is depicted in the physical manifestation of ripping the skin open to realize true closeness. “Break it up” in this context means to break the barriers that get in the way of deep intimacy; it is a cry of deep longing to be rid of one’s separateness. What I love about this song is its soul-rock feel and a more prominent role for Lenny Kaye, whose lead guitar counterpoint is simply marvelous. It’s one of the relatively few songs on Horses where the band asserts its presence, something that will become the norm on much of Radio Ethiopia.
That relatively short number is followed by another lengthy opus, the three-part piece called “Land.” Like “Gloria,” the poetry is sandwiched around a classic tune, (in this case “Land of a Thousand Dances,) but unlike “Gloria,” the connection between the poetry and the classic is more tenuous. The first part, “Horses,” describes a brutal male-t0-male rape with shocking imagery and a frantic, on-the-edge vocal from Patti; the final passage, “La Mer(de),” is where Patti makes a connection to Jimi Hendrix, to whom Patti dedicated the piece. The links to Hendrix can be found in the layered, multi-tracked lyrics (“In the sheets/there was a man/dreaming/of a simple/rock ‘n’ roll song”) and in certain musical similarities to “1983 (a Merman I Should Turn to Be)” from Electric Ladyland. “La Mer(de)” also harkens back to “Gloria” by repeating the line about humping parking meters. Throughout the piece, there are random references to Patti’s poetic hero (and mine), Arthur Rimbaud, tossed together with references to the early 60’s dance crazes cited in “Land of a Thousand Dances”:
I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go rimbaud go rimbaud go rimbaud)
And go johnny go and do the watusi,
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi . . .
If all this sounds like an unholy mess to you, I completely understand—“Land” is manifested chaos. While you can argue that the poetry could have been more disciplined (like Rimbaud) and I would nod my head in agreement, I would also tell you that out of all the tracks on Horses, this is the one I would have given anything to see in live performance. Patti’s performance is breathtaking, daring and relentlessly intense, and the band follows her churning peaks and valleys like the great jazz pros who learned to meld with Billie Holiday’s more subtle but equally complex approach to vocalization. Patti’s frantic, semi-stream-of-consciousness attack creates a feeling of excitement in me that is close to the near-delirium I used to feel when bashing about in the mosh pit. The best way to listen to “Land” is to suspend your structural needs and just fucking ride with it.
The more conventional tribute to Jimi Hendrix is found in the album’s closer, “Elegie,” which Patti recorded on the anniversary of his death. The melodic progression is the most complex and interesting of all the songs of Horses, and the relatively quiet background of bass and piano with splashes of slide and lead guitar sets a dark, rich and fitting background for Patti’s elegiac vocal. My favorite part is a brief passage after the second verse when Patti goes into a wordless vocal alternating ooh and aah, which is as beautiful as any of Kate Bush’s flights of fancy. The solemn ending line, “I think it’s sad, just too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today,” is another borrowing from “1983 (a Merman I Should Be).” It is an exceptionally strong closer to one of the most unique records ever made.
The production and recording of Horses was not a bed of roses. Producer John Cale and Patti were in constant conflict, an experience Patti has described (as a loyal Rimbaud follower) as “a season in hell.” She does admit that she was a naïve, difficult kid at the time; then again, she was dealing with a man with a known substance abuse problem and a history of wide swings in aesthetic perception. However difficult the process, the result is a beautiful enigma, along the lines of Blake’s dictum: “Without Contraries there is no progression.” Horses captures all the attitude, fire and tense edginess that would come to characterize punk, and perhaps the tension in the studio contributed to that.
While many have lauded Horses as one of the great albums in history and placed it high on best albums of all time lists, Horses confirms for me the absurdity of the entire ranking process. Ranking implies comparison, and Horses is simply incomparable, even within the boundaries of Patti Smith’s catalog. Nothing ever sounded like Horses, and I doubt that anything ever will. Love her or hate her, Patti Smith gave us a very rare gift with Horses, and while you may not care for what you hear, its breathtaking originality is undeniable.