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Patti Smith – Radio Ethiopia – Classic Music Review

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Too bad it wasn’t an EP, but click to buy anyway.

Critical darling one minute, sloppy seconds the next.

The musical press transformed Patti Smith from artistic genius to dump job in their collective outrage over Radio Ethiopia. Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone (who else?) sounded positively apoplectic: “”Her band is basically just another loud punk-rock gang of primitives, riff-based and redundant. The rhythm is disjointed, the guitar chording trite and elementary.” Others attacked her for equally silly reasons: that she collaborated with fellow band members on songwriting duties; that she had turned into another self-indulgent prima donna; and, of course, that she had sold out.

Sold out? Pretty haughty talk from critics working for music media outlets who accept millions in advertising dollars from the recording industry. Patti Smith fully admitted that she wanted Radio Ethiopia to be a more commercial record. Other than William Blake and Emily Dickinson, there have been very few artists in any field who didn’t want to make a few bucks doing what they loved to do. The Beatles “sold out” when Brian Epstein bought them tailored suits and made them stop smoking and eating on stage. Why is Please, Please Me #37 in Rolling Stone’s best albums of all-time list and not branded the “sell-out” that it was?

The music business is a filthy business, and no one comes out of it smelling like a rose, including and especially music critics who sold themselves out when they took their fucking jobs.

While no music critic can entirely avoid introducing their biases into their work, there are certain ethical fundamentals that all critics should observe, and number one is never compare this album to the last one. That stance makes the critic a prisoner of expectations and places the critic in the position of arrogantly deciding what the artist is permitted to do and what they are not. Each work should be evaluated on its own merits or lack thereof. You don’t need to compare Oasis’ Be Here Now to Morning Glory to know that the former is a piece of shit, so why even go there?

Horses was a unique experience that could never have been replicated anyway. If it had come out after Radio Ethiopia, critics would have probably slammed Patti for getting away from her rock-and-roll roots.

Harrumph!

The fact that things had changed for Patti Smith is clearly indicated on the album cover. This is the Patti Smith Group, not plain ol’ Patti Smith. She’s still the star of the show but Radio Ethiopia is a more collaborative effort. As far as it being a more commercial effort, that might be true, but since it didn’t sell particularly well, there’s no hard evidence to support that assertion, and many of the songs (especially the title track) distinctly lack commercial appeal. In its best moments, Radio Ethiopia is a hard-rocking album with strong attitude and more experimentation than the critics would have you believe. Patti Smith’s vocals are frequently characterized by power and energy, and she had one hell of a band backing her up.

Radio Ethiopia opens with a brilliant lesson of simplicity and tension in rock ‘n’ roll with “Ask the Angels”. The sharp electric guitar chords that open the song alternate between F# and D, hinting at the root key of A but refusing to go there. Drums and bass come in to fill some space and Patti’s right behind with some terribly sexy cooing on the word “mo–ooove” that tells you right then and there that she’s got the feeling. She then launches into a high-energy vocal while leaving the listener aching for the resolution that finally comes when the chords shift to the root in the chorus. Patti never lets up, motivating the band to keep this sucker moving. Lenny Kaye gets in a few good licks in his solos, Jay Dee Daugherty supplies a no-nonsense beat and Ivan Kral seals his reputation as one of the best bass players in the decade. While there are intermittent peaks in the “Wild! Wild! Wild! Wild” choruses, the track accelerates on Patti’s key line: “And rock and roll is what I’m born to be.” From there the band leaves us in exquisite tension by staying on the V chord of the chorus for several measures, where Patti Smith proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she can be one hell of a rock ‘n’ roll singer when she chooses to be:

Ask the angels if they’re startin’ to move
Comin’ in droves in from L.A.
Ask the angels if they’re starting to groove
Lightning as armor and it’s today, it’s wild, wild, wild, wild
Wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild wild wild wild

The song ends in tension, never resolving back to the root. It makes you want to scream for more or reach for a cigarette if your fingers are resting close to your sweet spot as mine often do when listening to rock ‘n’ roll. What a kick-ass song! No wonder Brody Armstrong (Dalle) and The Distillers had to cover it—it’s a perfect vehicle for Brody’s rough, rich growl and unflagging energy. The lyrics deal with the common thread between the wildness that makes us want to fuck and the wildness that makes want to kill—our less civilized instincts, so to speak. When I listen to “Ask the Angels,” though, I don’t give a damn about the lyrics. This baby rocks!

“Ain’t It Strange” is more of a heavy rock dirge, marked by Jay Dee’s thumping drums and Lenny Kaye’s clever guitar picking that opens the song and serves as a counterpoint throughout the verses, progressing to greater distortion and intensity. Patti’s vocal is somewhere between mumbling and running off at the mouth, like a speed freak who’s desperately trying to hear the sound of her own voice to convince her that she’s real in a weird, weird world. The scenes depicted in the lyrics continue the pattern of dichotomy of “Ask the Angels;” here the two polar opposites are crack house (or heroin den) and place of worship (temple or pagoda). The mood of the song is what makes it work: the contrast between Patti’s suspended vocals and the ritualistic jungle beat creates a feeling of wooziness, like the song is moving to the uncertain steps you take when you’re flying high or shit-faced drunk.

Not everything works on Radio Ethiopia, and “Poppies” is Exhibit 1 for the prosecution. The shift from rock to slow funk is itself rather refreshing, but the poetry and Patti’s slurry method of delivering the lines, while consistent with the story of a female heroin addict, turn promising into tedious pretty fast. If you search for the song’s tabs on the Net, you’ll find only Ivan Kral’s bass lines, easily the best contribution to a pretty weak and very long track. “Poppies” contains a few lines towards the end of the song about the act of excreting waste, which I suppose serves as a lead-in for the next track, “Pissing in a River.” The image is a rather strong metaphor for lost love and the wasted energy spent trying to save a doomed relationship:

My bowels are empty, excreting your soul
What more can I give you? Baby, I don’t know
What more can I give you to make this thing grow?
Don’t turn your back now, I’m talking to you

Ivan Kral’s processional music slowly builds from a piano-driven lament to a no-holds barred power arrangement that mirrors the rising outrage in Patti’s vocals, in turn reflected in the poem’s rising river imagery. The references to the classic torch song “Cry Me a River” hint at a desire for revenge or at least equal opportunity suffering on the part of the ex. Although I appreciate the performance, I have a hard time relating to the “look what I’ve done for you” orientation, which is a really pointless argument to make to someone who has chosen not to continue the relationship. While Patti does show some signs of self-reflection (“Should I pursue a path so twisted?/Should I crawl defeated and gifted?”), she never comes to the realization that a relationship is worthless unless both parties choose it, and comes across as the poor victim, a rather conventional and self-defeating stance for a woman to take.

Patti is a thousand times stronger in “Pumping (My Heart),” a take-no-prisoners rocker that lives up to its repeated theme of “total abandon.” Once again proving she can be a great rock ‘n’ roll singer, Patti is on a high fever on this piece, bending the blue notes like a pro and adding a deliciously sexy sneer to the entire performance. The band is as tight as a deep fuck, mixing screaming guitar, pumping bass and get-the-fuck-on-with-it drumming that must have given Patti plenty of reason to “free the hurricane” and deliver big time. That sweet phrase—“free the hurricane”—is exactly the way I feel when I haven’t gotten any for a day or two and I’m ready to explode. Patti also does a masterful job of linking the sex-violence dynamic, this time in a more positive and less destructive way than she did in “Ask the Angels”:

Oh, I go into the center of the airplane
Baby gotta go to the center of my brain
And my heart starts pumping, my fists start pumping
Got no recollection of my past reflection

So I’m free to move in the resurrection
And my heart starts pumping and my fists start pumping

My heart pumping
My heart pumping
My heart pumping

Coming in the airport, coming in the sea
Coming in the garden, got a conscious stream
Coming in a washroom, coming in a plane
Coming in a force field, coming in my brain

And my heart, my heart
Total abandon, total abandon, total abandon
Total abandon, total abandon, total abandon
Total abandon

Hmm. I’ve come in an airport, come on a boat, shot in a garden, jacked off in a washroom, had several orgasms on planes (I highly recommend masturbation to relieve the dreariness of a transatlantic flight) and I’m forever coming in my brain. That leaves force fields. Anybody got a spare force field they can lend me?

On “Distant Fingers,” Patti borrows Peter Reich’s wish for alien rescue in “Land” on Horses and makes it her own. The hard reggae beat is given a sexier treatment with a heavier bass line, stronger drum punch and hot electric guitar from Lenny Kaye, inspiring movement that combines swaying and grinding in a very mood-enhancing fashion. The lyrics, though, have little to do with sex (sniff), instead focusing on Patti’s sense of disconnection from the Earth and its inhabitants and an almost childlike desire for the aliens to come and take her away:

Deep in the forest I whirl like I did as a little girl
Let my eyes rise in the sky looking for you
Oh, you know, I would go anywhere at all
‘Cause no star is too far with you, with you

La, la, la, la, la, la, landing
Please, oh, oh, won’t you return?
Feel, feel my heart expanding
You and your alien arms

All my earthly dreams are shattered
I’m so tired, I quit
Take me forever, it doesn’t matter
Deep inside of your ship

Though the song may seem silly to ET-skeptics and sci-fi loathers, Patti makes a full commitment to her performance, just as The Shangri-Las did with their allegedly melodramatic pieces. I find this one of her most charming and delightful songs because of the sincere delight and fervent hope she expresses in describing her fantasy. Compared to David Bowie’s muddled sci-fi meanderings of the time, “Distant Voices” expresses the very common wish for rescue from our fucked-up world, its apparently insolvable problems and the existential isolation we ironically feel on an overcrowded planet.

The last twelve minutes of Radio Ethiopia are bloody fucking awful, as bad or worse than any of the pointless jams of the psychedelic period. From the irritating siren-like noises that open the track to the deliberate guitar squeaks to Patti’s unintelligible gibberish, there is very little in “Radio Ethiopia” or “Abyssinia” to engage even the most charitable listener. Patti loved the piece and has spoken of its references to Rimbaud’s dying wishes and the sculpture of Brancusi, but I don’t read any connection to the ramblings of a man suffering from cancer desperately trying to make up for a lifetime of blasphemy by cuddling up to the angels, nor do I hear any reflection of Brancusi’s sleek and simple curves in the horrible music. You can file these last two tracks in the “Self-Indulgent Crap” file and lift the needle at the end of “Distant Fingers.”

Radio Ethiopia would have been a much better album with more consistency, but it’s hardly the Titanic the critics would have you believe. When Patti and the band are rocking, they’re on fire; when her poetry and vocal approach are in sync, Patti intensifies the meaning of a song as well as anyone. Getting rid of the longer tracks makes for a damned fine EP, and any EP with “Ask the Angels” and “Pumping (My Heart)” is an automatic classic.

The critics may not have felt that way, but what happened after Radio Ethiopia is quite enlightening about the nature of music criticism in a commercially-oriented world. After a horrible fall from a stage during a performance, Patti took some time to recuperate and then came back with Easter, her most pop-oriented and commercial recording of all. Given the accusations of sell-out occasioned by the much less commercial Radio Ethiopia, one might naively think that the critics would have dismissed her completely and unceremoniously dumped her from future coverage.

Au contraire! The critics loved Easter! They went especially gaga over Patti’s collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on “Because the Night.” Our old friend Dave Marsh wrote in Rolling Stone that the Easter was “transcendent and fulfilled.”

Of course he did. Bruce Springsteen was Jann Wenner’s boy. Classic cross-marketing strategy.

Assholes.

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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