Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Horses, Patti Smith

This is the next in a series of the records of my life. I have previously written about Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and the two original New York Dolls albums. Today I honor the high-priestess of punk, politics, and rock 'n' roll, Patti Smith.

Rife with images of, and honorifics for, Arthur Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, cocaine, homosexuality, death, religion, space ships, girls, boys, switchblades, salvation, and stardom, while paying homage to American R&B, Top 40 pop, and English pub music, Patti Smith's Horses is one of the seminal punk records of the mid-1970s, and one of the most important rock 'n' roll records of all time.

In the Winter of 1975 or early 1976 I was laying down at my mother's house, listening to WBCN-FM, the nation's first commercial FM rock station. The lights were low and I was stoned and the cut Land started playing. I had never heard it, and I had never heard anything like this in my life, and I became a Patti Smith fan at that precise moment.

It took a few months for me to actually get the LP, but when I put the stylus to the vinyl, I heard opening words as famous as "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," or "Call me Ishmael."

Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.


Now, I am a lyrics cripple. I mis-hear lyrics all the time and this record leaves me more befuddled than most, as I have admitted here.

Gloria (in exclesis deo) is Patti Smith's reworking of Them's classic pub-rock hit, "Gloria" (you know: "G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloooooooriaaaaa!"). As was the fashion of the times, she does not bother to change her position as the song's singer and it remains a love song to a girl, this time sung by a girl.

I go to this here party and I just get bored
until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing
humpin' on a parking meter, leanin' on a parking meter
oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
and I got this crazy feeling that I'm gonna
uh-uh make her mine

She then sings about being a rock star:
Playing at the stadium
Some ten thousand girls reach out to me
Marie, Ruth, but to tell you the truth
I didn't hear them I didn't see
I let my eyes rise to the big tower clock
and I heard those bells chiming in my heart
going ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong.

And the refrain throughout the song is Van Morrison's simple well-known chorus, one of the most famous refrains in pop music, more famous than The Kinks' "L-O-L-A Lola," The Beatles' "Goo goo g'joob," and The Stones' "Hey, hey, You, you, get offa my cloud," the driving:
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria
G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria

The band builds to a remarkable crescendo after five-plus minutes of ebbing and flowing through the remarkable lyrical roller coaster that is Patti Smith's singing. They slow to a break, and the opening line is repeated
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine.

and the band kicks back into the refrain and the song fades just short of six minutes.

There are few better examples of a remarkable first cut on the first side of a first album anywhere in the annals of popular music. Nobody sits still through this song, whether listing to a recording or seeing it live.

The second cut picks-up in the love department right where the opening cut left off. A love song about a girl, by a girl. On a bootleg recording of a Patti Smith concert, she begins the song Redondo Beach by chanting: "Redondo Beach is a beach where women love other women."

With a quasi-reggae sound, probably as reggae sounding as this ultra-white band could muster, Redondo Beach is a song about learning that your lover is dead, a victim of a sweet suicide. This cut is a hint of Lenny Kaye's versatility, his mastery of pop music, and his ability to create any sound on demand.

This is a simple love song, really, with a punk-y twist of seedy motels and death. It starts with the vocal being almost cheerful:
Late afternoon, cheap motel,
We just had a quarrel and I sent you away.
I went looking for you, and you were gone.

And the singing becomes more desperate as the search continues:
Desk clerk told me
A girl's been washed-up
A smiling angel, with apple-blonde hair now
I went looking for you, and you were gone.

And it ends with the stark observation that true love is truly lost:
Down by the ocean it was so dismal.
I was just standing with shock on my face.
The hearse pulled away, and the girl in the tide, it was you.
You'll never return into my arms 'cause you are gone.

Birdland is a punk-jazz fusion of lyrics chanted, moaned, and read as a poem as much as sung atop the band's sparsely-produced music very much underneath the text. The poem tells the story of a young man whose father dies and the boy begs for his return, or to be taken "up" with him.

Though I have never spoken or read French, I became a fan of Arthur Rimbaud's poetry shortly before I found Patti Smith, and this piece reeks of the symbolism stylings which make Rimbaud the best-known, most-famous of the French Impressionist poets.

Birdland evokes images of hearses, ravens, glaring eyes shining like opals, mothers and sons, black bouquets, and images of death that make it seem almost appealing.

Like other songs on the record, Birdland starts very soft, builds to an insane pace that must be difficult for a band to maintain, only to land gracefully, this time to strains of American doo-wop music:
Where there were eyes there were just two white opals
And he looked up and the rays shot
And he saw a raven coming in
And he crawled on his back and he went up
Up up up up up up
Sha da do wop, da sha na do why,
Sha da do wop, da sha na do why, (Repeating)
We like birdland.

Smith's songs often touch on one political theme or another. Free Money is about . . . well . . . money. It's a sort of anarchistic adoration of cold hard cash (of which she sings she has none) and a love song. If she had a lot of money, no matter how she got it, she would buy you everything.
Every night before I rest my head
See those dollar bills go swirling 'round my bed.
I know they're stolen, but I don't feel bad.
I take that money, buy you things you never had.

Again, the song starts soft and melodic, with Smith's non-singer voice singing sweetly while the band builds steadily. This is the fourth song in a row (the entirety of Side One) that follows this pedestrian paradigm; but, instead of seeming tedious or trite, she manages to nail each of the songs.

I attended a thirtieth anniversary performance of Horses at BAM a couple years ago. The band played the album all the way through, note for note (with some of the lyrics changed, skipped or mutilated, of course, because how could anybody know, never mind remember that many words for eight songs). At the end of Free Money she joked coyly: "Now we flip over the record."

A faux-reggae back-beat and simple singing open "Kimerly," a beautiful song about her sister. Filled with Rimbaud-like symbolism, it starts slow and builds, but not to a break-neck speed like the songs on Side One.

Never have I thought of the death of Joan of Arc in sexual terms, but this certainly makes me think it:
The sea rushes up my knees like flame
And I feel like just some misplaced Joan Of Arc

Whoa! Wow! OK, if you say so. I was floored by this line when I first heard it. It is spiritual and sexual and political all at once. The implications of the imagery are endless. This is, indeed, poetry.

And the impressionism continues:
So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby faces
Burst from the barn and the flames in a violent violet sky,
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me.
Your soul was like a network of spittle,
Like glass balls moving in like cold streams of logic.
And I prayed as the lightning attacked.
Some will make it go crack, some will make it go crack,
Some will make it go crack, some will make it go crack.
While 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.

On Break It Up the band is tight, the music is excellent, the poetic imagery is on par with the rest of the record. Lenny Kaye's lead guitar work is sublime. And it has to be left in the back if it is to be successful. To bring the lead guitar forward would betray the poetry -- the entire drive of the album as a body of work. This is a good song, that is well performed, well produced, well written and perfectly entertaining. It just has the misfortune of being placed between the lovely Kimberly and the impossibly intricate and ground-breaking Land.

Land is a three-part song that leaves me (to this day) awe-struck. Every artist has a Johnny, a boy they sing about. Sometimes Johnny is autobiographic, sometimes he is not. Patti Smith's Johnny is introduced in Land. He is sipping a glass a tea in the hallway and at the other end of the hallway the rhythm is generating. Johnny meets a boy who doesn't treat him very well, but Johnny seems to like it.
The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny

So, Johnny has had something stuck inside him. Is it a switchblade or is it a cock? Is this sex or violence? Is it both? The song has a sexual rhythm to it, and the imagery is not entirely violent. Is it a song about two boys having sex or fighting? Or are these two things the same thing for Johnny?

Smith then pays tribute to Wilson Pickett by including his Land of 1,000 Dances in this triptych. Co-written by Fats Domino, this sixties dance hit deserves to be enshrined in history and Smith's homage is sincere and complete.
Do you know how to pony like Bony Maroney
Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this
Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator

The song moves into La Mer and Smith plays with words:
Up there there is a sea, seas of possibilities
There is no land but the land
There is no sea but the sea
There is no keeper of the key
Except for one who sees the possibilities
One who seizes possibilities.

"Sees the possibilities," "seize the possibilities," and "seas of possibilities" are interwoven perfectly and she dives right back into her Rimbaud-style impressionism:
The waves were coming in like Arabian stallions
Gradually lapping into sea horses
He picked up the blade and he pressed it against his
smooth throat
And let it dip in
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening in my hand
And I felt the arrows of desire

Back to the violence and sex, and a direct command for her punk-poet-hero to visit the Land of 1,000 Dances:
I put my hand inside his cranium,
we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more.
Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,
And go Johnny go, and do the watusi,
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi

The song continues to build to crescendo, then she references back to the opening song of the record
saw this sweet young thing humping on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter

and it slowly fades out like a simple rock and roll song.

Anyone paying attention to this ten minute extravaganza of a song should be either exhausted or so stimulated that they want more. On many occasions I simply lifted the stylus and returned to the beginning of the cut and listened over and over and over again, never really certain of the lyrics and never caring if I was understanding it correctly.

The lovely Elegie follows Land and ends the record. It's sort of like a cigarette in bed after an athletic sexual experience. It is a simple poem over a simple track written by Smith and Allen Lanier:
I just don't know what to do tonight,
My head is aching as I drink and breathe
Memory falls like cream in my bones, moving on my own.

There must be something I can dream tonight,
The air is filled with the moves of you,
All the fire is frozen yet still I have the will, ooh, ah.

Trumpets, violins, I hear them in the distance
And my skin emits a ray, but I think it's sad, it's much too bad
That our friends can't be with us today.

The record ends too soon.

Horses peaked at #47 on the Billboard charts, and Rolling Stone (and every other rock media) includes it in their list of the most important records of all-time.

For covers of these songs, I highly recommend Morrissey's live recording of Redondo Beach from his Live at Earls Court CD. He does it beautifully.

Most of Patti Smith's cover photos (records and books) were done by the late Robert Mapplethorpe. This cover is no exception.

Track List:

Side One
1. Gloria - 5:56
- In Excelsis Deo (Patti Smith)
- Gloria (version) (Van Morrison)
2. Redondo Beach (Smith, Richard Sohl, Lenny Kaye) – 3:26
3. Birdland (Smith, Sohl, Kaye, Ivan Kral) – 9:15
4. Free Money (Smith, Kaye) – 3:51

Side two
1. Kimberly (Smith, Allen Lanier, Kral) – 4:26
2. Break It Up (Smith, Tom Verlaine) – 4:04
3. Land – 9:25
- Horses (Smith)
- Land of a Thousand Dances (Chris Kenner, Antoine Domino)
- La Mer(de) (Smith)
4. Elegie (Smith, Lanier) – 2:56

Total Playing Time: 43:10

Produced by John Cale

Recorded at Electric Lady Studios, New York, 1975

Date of release: November 1975

Label: Arista Records

Patti Smith – guitar, vocals
Richard Sohl – piano
Lenny Kaye – lead guitar
Ivan Kral – guitar, bass, vocals on track 8
Jay Dee Daugherty – drums, musical consultant
Tom Verlaine – guitars on "Break It Up"
Allen Lanier – guitars on "Elegie"

Dick Mac Recommends:

Patti Smith

or the 30th Anniversary edition that includes the entire record performed live:

Patti Smith

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