The Album List: #60 Patti Smith “Horses”

Once upon a time, there was a little tow-headed girl child with big brown eyes who grew up in a house with her mother, a kind and music loving woman who was nevertheless very conservative in her views about male-female roles in the world; and her father, a distant man who dismissed rock and roll and could be quite mean when dealing with his free-spirited girl child. His views on women’s roles was indeed quite harmful to this young one, who felt betrayed by him on more than one occasion. When this girl child was thirteen, her mother took ill, and the girl child felt so alone in the world. She took on some of the things that her mother did in the house and felt unappreciated for it.

So she started listening to Patti Smith in secret, because she knew her parents would freak out in a bad way.

By the time this girl child was an adult- well, I’m sure her father is perplexed by her to this day.

Patti Smith’s Horses  is the moment where I ceased to listen to my parents.

I spent my life trying to make people happy who will never be happy with me. Eventually I’ll finish sorting myself out. Patti Smith has a lot to do with the process.

She wasn’t beautiful is a way that makes sense. She was androgynous, homely, and skinny in the gawky way. But those Maplethorpe photos of her are gorgeous. And she was smart. She was smarter than most men. She knew it. And she was poetic. She was meant for punk rock. But she was still too different for the genre she helped to create.

From the opening intonation of “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” to the last piano chord of “Elegie”, it’s a record that has been my constant companion through fifteen years of musical discovery.

It’s all Michael Stipe’s fault.

See, I’ve been an R.E.M. fan since God knows when ( okay, since “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”). It was his constant praise for this record that led me to it. I was fifteen when I finally sat down and listened to it. It blew my mind.  She didn’t change gender when singing “Gloria”, making it even more fanatic and obsessive with each breath while subverting expectations ( Carole Pope of Rough Trade did the same thing with the original “High School Confidential”, another favourite song of mine from this era), creating a story to add to the later, traditional song at the end. The cover of the Them garage rock classic is propulsive, driven by Patti’s own vocals and Lenny Kaye’s expert guitar work. Also, that profane, provocative opening line certainly made me feel empowered in my own little head, as it was the direct contradiction of what my parents believed, and had taught me.

I always really loved the complex “Land”, which is a three-part mini opera, which begins with a poem before launching into a monotonous chorus, then soaring into a version of “Land of 1,000 Dances”, then ending in “La Mer (De)”, a magnificent tribute to her personal hero, Arthur Rimbaud. Part spoken word masterpiece from the queen of New York punk poets, part slam dance, part love song, it’s one of the most important songs of my life. I was never the same after listening to “Land”. It was when I realized that real poets wrote songs in the new world. I do twirl around when I hear it. I do what I’m told.

The album is brilliant all the way through. There is the pretty piano and primal drums that lead to soaring vocals on “Free Money”, the surprising gentleness of “Kimberly”, the string bending elegance of “Elegie”, the jazz touches of “Birdland”, the sixties bounce of “Redondo Beach”, or the Tom Verlaine co written “Break It Up”, which sounds exactly like a Tom Verlaine song sung like a Patti Smith song.  There isn’t a weak link, there isn’t a misstep. It’s of its time but still sounds completely fresh. Eight tracks of pure perfection.

I love every record Patti has put out over the years, even the more commercial Easter, and the latter masterpieces Gone Again and Gung Ho. She speaks to me in a way many other song writers and poets attempt to do but ultimately fail. I appreciate their efforts. But they are no Patti Smith.

And while your out buying this record, please remember to pick up Patti’s award-winning memoir, Just Kids. Listen to Horses while you read it. It becomes even more powerful an experience. I didn’t think that would be possible.


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