Patti Smith: Horses
Patti Smith at the 2016 Newport Folk Festival (photo by Neil Swanson for WFUV)
Album ReCue, a part of FUV's new EQFM initiative, takes an on-air and online look back at influential releases by women that altered not only our perspective of the artist, but her invaluable impact on music history. Listen above for hosts Alisa Ali and Delphine Blue's assessment of Patti Smith's Horses and below, an album overview)
As New York punk's high priestess, gazing into infinity with preternatural beatitude on the cover of her 1975 debut album, Horses, Patti Smith knew from the start that she was the revolution that rock desperately needed in the macho-posturing mid-Seventies. That portrait of Smith, looking down the lens of a camera held by her beloved Robert Mapplethorpe, was beautifully androgynous, but that's not what makes it remarkable; rather, it was Smith's steel-cool confidence, as nonchalant as Sinatra and as focused as a falcon.
After meeting guitarist Lenny Kaye, Smith began setting her own incendiary trail in New York's underground clubs, landing most notably at CBGB. At the time Horses was recorded, Smith and her bandmates/co-conspirators of the Patti Smith Group—which expanded to keyboardist Richard Sohl, bassist Ivan Kral (who passed away in February) and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty—were seizing the night with sweaty, febrile gigs of electrified poetry. Smith spat out her words like shrapnel, about South Jersey, sex, rejection, the cerebral allure of a ruthless city, the heady seduction of literature, and the ugly parts of being female in a world that punished smart, unconventional women with loathing and desecration.
A warrior with words as her saber and shield, Smith's poetry became her magnificent fortress, built with walls of anger, vulnerability, triumph, and roiling grief. She might feel like some "misplaced Joan of Arc," as she raps in "Kimberly," but like any martyr, Smith had a higher mission in mind: an identity shaped by the misfits and outliers that traditional society rejected. She firmly set down her own rules of what it meant to be a rock auteur.
Horses moves fast; it's ablaze with exhilarating wordplay, as on the strangely gorgeous "Birdland," dotted with scatting and serpentine sibilance. Smith can be sinister as hell too, with death at mere arm's reach: Women tragically die by suicide ("Redondo Beach"); the ghosts of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix hover near ("Break It Up," "Elegie"); and on the trauma-filled odyssey "Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer," there are fevered incantations of Arthur Rimbaud, Araban stallions, a relentless sea, and sock-hop dances.
Of course, Horses lays claim to the most startling opening line of any debut album, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," as Smith interpolates Them's pop hit "Gloria," a very male, very clichéd sex fantasy; she transforms it as a triumphant, erotic, feminist (and queer) anthem, "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo."
Smith's ragged roar was heard by millions who felt marginalized in society, art and music and her disciples are many: Michael Stipe, Siouxie Sioux, PJ Harvey, Johnny Marr, Garbage's Shirley Manson, and just about anyone who made made music or scribbled verses in a notebook after 1975. In recent years she's even shown a tender side in 2010's Just Kids, 2015's M Train, and as a eulogist for lost friends.
"In 1974, when I started working with the material that became Horses, a lot of our great voices had died," Smith told the Guardian in 2013. "We'd lost Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and people like Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. There were so many losses so quickly. These people who were building a political and cultural voice. And it seemed that rock 'n' roll was heading towards something different—something consumer-oriented and stadium-oriented. I felt new generations had to come and break everything apart. As Jim Morrison says, 'Break on through to the other side.' And I felt in the center, not quite the old generation, not quite the new generation. I felt like the human bridge, and I just thought, you have to wake up. Wake them up."
WFUV's EQFM Album ReCue: Patti Smith's Horses