Tag Archives: Gloria

Them – The Story of Them – Classic Music Review

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Them is a problematic band for the music critic, for two reasons.

First, the general consensus is that they were a better live band than a studio band, but very few live recordings exist: a classic case of “you had to be there but you weren’t.” Okay . . . so what do I do with that piece of useless information when all I have are studio recordings?

Second, the members were frequently replaced on the recordings by studio musicians, so most of the time there’s no way of knowing if that’s Billy Harrison on lead guitar or Jimmy Page or a drunk who happened to stumble into the studio. AllMusic opines that on their second album, “To this day, nobody knows who played . . . other than Van Morrison and bassist Alan Henderson.” Studio substitution was certainly not unique to Them—it was a very common practice on both sides of the pond in the 60’s—but it makes it difficult to answer the question, “How good are these fucking guys, anyway?”

What is known is Them followed the same pattern of The Stones and The Animals by starting their recording career with a heavy emphasis on covers of R&B, blues and soul classics. The difference is that they performed those songs with a rougher edge, probably a result of Van Morrison’s deep grounding in R&B and the band’s Belfast origins. The Troubles were still a few years away, but Belfast in the early 1960’s was a declining relic of the Industrial Revolution like many other cities in the U. K. Its status as a port made it a virtual twin of Liverpool, and the youth in both cities liked their music rough and sweaty. Them mixed gritty R&B covers with primitive Van Morrison originals, and what you hear on this extended album is about a 50-50 split.

I’m sorry, but that’s such a weird sentence: “Them mixed covers . . . ” I feel like I’m writing in Klingon or one of the ancient Aztec languages that used the rare object-verb-subject linguistic typology. It will try to get over I.

Them released only two albums before Morrison went solo. The Angry Young Them is a garage rock classic, and most of the songs that people associate with Them came from that period. The follow-up album—Them Again—failed to chart in the U. K. and didn’t do dick in the U. S. That album is less garage than their maiden album, and its touches of folk and jazz have led many to consider the record a rehearsal for Van Morrison’s solo career. The title of this collection implies that Them was Van Morrison, but after his exit some of the other members carried on and became a decent U. S.-based psychedelic group before fading in the early 70’s.

Given that The Story of Them compiles songs from two albums in an era when albums weren’t all that important, there’s a lot of filler material on this record. The alternate takes in particular are trivial pursuits, and about half the songs fall into the “okay” category, either because Van Morrison hadn’t fully developed his songwriting skills or because of a relative lack of enthusiasm in the studio. After listening to all 50 tracks three times in succession, I think I can safely say that Them was probably a great house band, and if you were lucky enough to hear them live in the early days, you probably had a good time sweating the night away with the lads.

Fifty tracks amounts to a Them overdose, so I’m going to skip most of the so-so pieces and cover the rest in three groups: the hits, the best covers and the better originals. Allons!

The Hits

“Mystic Eyes”: If there’s one song that hints at what a Them performance might have sounded like, it’s “Mystic Eyes.” Them were famous for extending songs for twenty minutes, letting the improvisational impulse rule the night. In the case of “Mystic Eyes,” the band was just fucking around in the studio on an extended instrumental when Van Morrison decided to throw in a fragment of a song he’d been working on. The improvisation was caught on tape and caused some excitement in the booth, but also presented the producer with a serious marketing problem: the song was ten minutes long. This was before “Like a Rolling Stone” opened up the possibility of long singles, so the engineers snipped off most of the seven minutes before Morrison enters and cut off a slice from the end to get it down to 2:41. The results were so satisfying that “Mystic Eyes” became the opener to The Angry Young Them.

What we have is akin to a fragment of an old photograph, full of tantalizing clues. But what a fragment! The song starts at full throttle with Morrison taking the lead on harmonica, drums pounding, maracas shaking, guitar helping to drive the rhythm. The bass is relatively unnoticeable until about 27 seconds in when Alan Henderson starts a simple run to signal a move. That move comes with high-speed guitar chords, allowing Morrison to lay back for a moment. The build gets more intense, ending with a spine-tingling full-strummed chord dripping with natural distortion that signals a semi-stop-time passage where Morrison returns with harmonica fills that are stunningly melodic and soulful. Billy Harrison (I hope!) plays call-and-response with Morrison with a nifty little lick, then the band lowers the volume for Morrison’s vocal. The lyrical fragment serves to enhance the manic eeriness of the song:

One sunday morning
We’d been walking
Down by
The old graveyard
The morning fog
I looked at you
Yeah
Those mystic eyes

Morrison’s vocal is an expression of lusty fascination with a hint of terror. It’s as if the mystic eyes are taking control of his soul and, like a man on a roller coaster, he doesn’t know whether to scream with delight or pee in his pants. In the background Alan Henderson catches the feeling by extending his bass runs and Billy Harrison (please!) plays high-speed, high-fret licks like he’s consumed with the devil’s fire.

“Gloria”: According to dear old dad, “Gloria” was one of the songs that any garage band had to learn if they wanted to have any credibility with the teenage audience. To prove his point, he played me a snippet of “Gloria” recorded by one of the bands he played with in his teens. It turned out to be an accidental hoot because the lead singer kept forgetting how to spell G-L-O-R-I-A! Once he spelled it G-O-R-I-L-A, leaving him one L short of condemnation by P.E.T.A. as a practitioner of bestiality.

While I like the trebly roughness of the guitar on Them’s version of “Gloria,” I find Patti Smith’s expanded remake a far more compelling experience. I respect Them’s version as a cultural icon, but their “Gloria” lacks the sense of erotic mystery you get with “Mystic Eyes.” Okay, so there’s a chick who stands five-foot-four and likes to visit boys at midnight to give them head. Well, I’m five-foot-four and I used to do that all the time when I was in high school! There’s nothing mysterious about a horny teenager!

“Baby Please Don’t Go”: This was the A-side to “Gloria,” and I’ll take Them’s version of Big Joe Williams’ song over “Gloria” any day. Studio musicians dominate this track, with Ringo tonsillitis replacement Andy White on the drums, a very young Phil Coulter on second keyboard and Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar. But that’s definitely Billy Harrison on lead guitar, bless his heart! Billy’s solos in the intro and instrumental break are garage-superb, and Alan Henderson should get the Nobel Prize for his bass work. Van Morrison is hot on the vocal and on the harp, and the supporting organ makes this a far more compelling listening experience than the B-side.

“Here Comes the Night”: Written by producer Bert Berns, this rhythm-shifting number is the least Them-like of their hits, but allows them to demonstrate surprising versatility. Van Morrison gets the chance to vary his vocal style and pulls it off with aplomb, and the guitar work here combines the chord tones of “Mystic Eyes” with the sound of simple, clean picking. It’s not a song for the dance floor, but it certainly works as a listening experience.

The Best Covers

“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”: The Stones’ version of this oft-covered song is better than Nat King Cole’s, but I think Them’s version tops them all. Over a tight rolling piano, Van Morrison steps up and owns this sucker, varying his phrasing with more than a touch of street-wise cheekiness. Them’s version really rocks, and I hope they find missing tapes of Them’s live performances, because I’d love to hear an extended version of this one.

“Don’t Look Back”: This sweet version of a John Lee Hooker number stands out because of Van Morrison’s unusually tender vocal and a piano part I’d describe as pretty and primitive—it sounds like they either ran the piano through a cheap amp or used a knock-off-label electric piano, but whatever it is, the sound is sweet and ear-catching in a curious way. The easy groove makes this song a good slow-dance number.

“How Long Baby”: Them recorded three songs by Them Again producer Tommy Scott, aka M. Gillon. This one’s an organ-driven R&B ballad about a girl who’s been playing the field and humiliating the narrator in the process, but you can stop me if you’ve heard that story a million times before. What turns the trite into a keeper is Van Morrison’s commanding vocal and a delightfully Neanderthal lead guitar on some kind of distorted and flanged vibrato. Okay—so I have a fetish for early electric guitar sound effects. Wanna makes somethin’ of it?

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”: This truncated version of the Bob Dylan classic also features unusual piano effects and a Van Morrison R&B-style vocal that gives the song a refreshing texture. Dylan covers were a dime a dozen in the 60’s, but this is certainly one of the better interpretations from that Zimmerman-obsessed decade.

“Hello Josephine”: Van Morrison really steps up on this Fats Domino number, supported by New Orleans sax and Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano slides. The lead guitar solo is pure garage supported by a nice tube amp tone. My only problem with the track is that it’s too short: they could have easily added another instrumental passage and I wouldn’t have complained.

“Times Getting Tougher Than Tough”: A Jimmy Witherspoon number that would work for someone like Brian Setzer, Van Morrison and the boys thankfully keep the roadside blues house sound of the original, giving us a nice sassy number with a pretty respectable sax solo. The lyrics are a hoot, and kudos to Van Morrison for a snappy lead vocal that doesn’t blur the words in the process.

The Better Originals

“Philosophy”: The “philosophy” is the tired males-can-sow-their-oats-but-chicks-need-to-wear-chastity-belts myth, but the chintzy garage guitar is irresistible. The song also allows Van Morrison to extend his range, and I love it when he soars to the high notes in the melody, backing off the mike just enough to avoid sonic overload.

“One More Time”: Releasing this song as a single caused some dissension in the band, and since the single bombed, the producers should have listened to their artists. While it may not fit the limited criteria for a hit single, it’s a very strong slow dance R&B number with tremolo-heavy arpeggiated chords and an exceptionally rich vocal from Van Morrison. It’s difficult to resist comparisons to Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon while listening to this song, and on this performance, Van leaves them both in the dust.

“You Just Can’t Win”: A minor key delight opening with slightly edgy arpeggiated guitar and superb cymbal work, this song about a girl who has substituted her lower-class origins for life with the jet set is one of Them’s most interesting songs. The chord changes defy expectations and the sudden shift to heavy toms and bass drum on the chorus catches the listener by surprise. I don’t think this is single material, but it is a clever bit of arranging.

“Friday’s Child”: An unusual acoustic guitar number that presages Van Morrison’s solo work, the structure is very Dylanesque and probably borders on plagiarism. Legal issues aside, I love the simplicity of the arrangement and Van Morrison’s passionate vocal. The effect-drenched acoustic guitar solo is another beautiful garage-type experiment, like “Hey, what do these knobs do?” “Cool!”

On a two-disc kitchen sink extravaganza there are going to be some stinkers. Why on earth they chose to cover Paul Simon’s ripoff of “Richard Cory” is beyond me. Them’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” may be more true to the original, but pales in comparison to the Alan Price classic. The very long album opener “The Story of Them Parts 1 and 2” is a self-indulgent yawner and a weak attempt to imbue the band with an in-crowd kind of cachet. It doesn’t work for me because you had to be there and I wasn’t.

Even with the weak tracks, I found the full listening experience pretty satisfying. The album is probably way too much Them for any but the most devoted fan, but I’d rather listen to a whole lot of Them than a whole lot of Freddie and the Dreamers. At their best, they were defiant outsiders, living on the edge of the Swinging Sixties, leaving behind some of the purest guitar-based music of the era.

They call that music “garage” now, and in a world dominated by software and synths, it sounds terribly exciting.

Patti Smith – Horses – Classic Music Review

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The famous Mapplethorpe portrait is worth it by itself, but what’s inside is even more special. Click to buy.

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 mom and dad 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 short list 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.”

My 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 the 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 learnt 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 sleevenote has 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 where 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
G-L-O-R-I-I-I, G-L-O-R-I-A!

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 a way 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 as 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 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 place it high on best-albums-of-all-time lists, Horses really 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.

The Guardian Interview with Patti Smith

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