Retrofitted: Patti Smith’s Horses

It’s fitting that the second record in this series is Patti Smith’s debut record Horses. I discovered Patti’s music through my adolescent obsession with R.E.M., the first group I discussed. I read about Michael Stipe‘s fascination with Patti’s poetry and music and what a profound influence it was on his own desire to make music. Roughly at the same time, 10,000 Maniacs did a cover of the Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen co-written song “Because the Night” – many of you will remember that this was from the MTV Unplugged (remember that?) series. While the latter recording marked the swan song for the Maniacs with Natalie Merchant, the moment opened a whole new chapter in my musical knowledge.

Although I hadn’t yet become all that familiar with Punk Rock, I’d already become entranced by the work of the Velvet Underground. When I first heard Horses, I thought it sounded like a logical evolution from the VU and that it shared a strange lyrical similarity to the early Doors records. It was years later that I learned about the common territory trod by Lou Reed and Patti Smith when reading two phenomenal books about the musical scene in NYC in the 60s and 70s, Please Kill Me and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. (If you like independent and/or punk rock, these two books are essential reading. For more detailed explanation of each book click on the link above entitled Paperback Writers.) Both books led me to revisit the work of Patti and her band.

In a strange way, I think the timing was fitting. One, I have commented routinely to friends about the increasing volume of great rock records by solo female artists or all-female bands in the past couple of years from the current years’ releases by Sharon Van Etten, Grimes, or La Sera or last year’s phenomenal records by St. Vincent, Tune-Yards and Wild Flag (as opposed to the singer-songwriter adult alternative style that it seemed for a time in the 90s was the only way for female musicians to get recognized). I think there is no question that Patti Smith’s influence runs through a lot of these records, especially the work of the  rock fusionists Wild Flag and the soul-searing songwriting of Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent. Also, for me personally, Horses feels more relevant today than it ever did as a teen. At the time, I was struck by the aggressiveness and confrontational nature of Smith’s lyrics – I was a teenager, anything that went against convention was exciting. Today, I hear all the ways in which Smith and her band were the bridge between 60s rock and 70s punk rock and, even more importantly, how the quirky counter-pop ornate rock and its austere production inspired countless independent/college rock acts of the 80s and 90s. I don’t think it’s unfair to call Horses one of the most important American records of the 1970s. And, yet, I’d speculate that Smith and her band are less known than other 70s bands like Eagles, Steve Miller Band, Boston or Aerosmith – bands that , I’d argue, had less (or no) influence on modern rock.

As the unofficial poet laureate of the late 60s and 70s New York scene, Patti Smith had been a figure in the cultural landscape of Lower Manhattan some time before putting out her first record. But when Horses debuted in December of 1975, she instantly became a larger than life figure. If you read Will Hermes’ Loves Goes to Buildings on Fire, you get the sense that if Lou Reed was alternative New York’s king, Patti became its queen, the person that every celebrity and visitor needed to see or befriend. (Even Bob Dylan, a legend in his own right, was for a time obsessed with Patti.) And if you listen to Horses you’ll begin to understand why.

Horses is a bullet of unrelenting emotional turbulence and raw energy – no offense to Iggy and the Stooges but to me this had more raw power than their record of that name. Although Patti Smith is best known for her writing, in many ways, the musicianship on this record is insanely good and perhaps its most important component. Lenny Kaye’s guitar work throughout the record is both searing and soothing; just listen to the shift from the end of “Free Money” to “Kimberley”. “Free Money” comes at you like aural knife accentuated by Patti’s vocals that sound like she’s about to escape from her skin by song’s end. On the ensuing track, “Kimberley”, the tempo drastically changes with the band writing their version of languid 50s surf rock song – it’s smooth and relaxing an oddly playful mix after the intensity of “Free Money”. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear where bands likes Blondie or other 80s outfits built off of the Patti Smith’s band unique revision of American rock while adding layers of synthesizers and drum machines to create the dance pop of that era. But, I’m jumping ahead of myself because the first impression you’ll have of this album is Smith’s most recognizable song “Gloria” – a mix of her own song with Van Morrison’s similarly titled song. “Gloria” lets you know Patti isn’t your traditional chanteuse, she oscillates between speak-singing her lines and bluesy rock accents – she has quality to her intonation that reminds me of Jagger, inflecting words and notes against what you’d expect, squeezing out sexual energy and innuendo where it doesn’t belong. More than an anything it’s an adrenaline infusing, fist-pumping rock song. If this quality of Patti’s is lost amidst the intensity of “Gloria”, just listen to “Redondo Beach”, a simple song that foregrounds Patti’s vocal performance and is the first taste to the group’s reinvention of 50s surf rock along with a vaguely reggae sounding beat.

Filled with countless great rock songs, the highpoint of this record for me is found in the two long form compositions “Birdland” and “Land”. The former is a mellow number with a “Plains State” sounding isolation and expanse underscored by Patti’s shift between spoken word narrative and an almost banshee like singing. It evokes the sense of haunting dream-like storytelling of the Doors’ “The End.” In contrast, “Land” is a full throttle mash up of classic rock allusions, Wilson Pickett’s “Land of Thousand Dances“, with a jarring proto-punk guitar jam that last for an unbelievable 8 minutes, interspersed with Patti’s textbook mix of poetry reading and spit-singing. (For fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, if you love the way Karen O sings, you should definitely listen to this song and the entirety of this record, as there is a lot of Patti Smith in Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) Listening to “Land”, I imagine the craziness of the 70s lower Manhattan street at Max’s Kansas City or CBGB’s with the likes of Television, the Ramones, Lou Reed and the countless “outcasts of middle America” that moved to NYC to find a home away from the judgment, constrictions and isolation of the conventional world. And, I imagine them dancing like crazy kids to the Patti Smith Group just burning through “Land”. So do yourself a favor and take this album for a spin, here.

…and last the cover photo has become iconic not just because you can see the rebellious and self-assured attitude of its subject but because it was taken by the late and brilliant (and not un-controversial) photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a friend and more to Patti over the years, which is captured in the beautifully written memoir Just Kids — a beautiful book I’ve been told.

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