“Jesus died for somebody’s sins….but not mine”. The opening line for my ‘pick’ for this meeting smacked me in the face as a 16 year old record collector and indoctrinated Christian. I wa
s exploring punk at this time, and aside from the Damned, Buzzcocks and the comedic elements of the genre I was also looking at what had gone before, the roots of the culture and musical forms. I was signposted by narrative, mainly from the pages of the NME, to where the links were – Iggy Pop, Television, Richard Hell. Of course Patti Smith was cited in these narratives, and she is often called the queen of Punk, the punk poetess. On this album you hear much more than simply a poetry set to furious guitars and drums – although there is plenty of that too.
Patti Smith was born in 1946, and so was a “child of the 60s”, starting out life as a poet and “hung out” with Robert Mapplethorpe – the artist who was to photograph her so evocatively for this album’s cover. I now read that she was also bought up in a religious home, eventually rejecting organised religion in favour of her own ways during her teens. Such was the strength of this rejection that it led to the writing of the opening line – this is even more poignant for me now knowing that fact.
The album is so defiant to me in many ways, from the androgyny of the cover to the way she spits and snarls through the opening track ‘Gloria’. The album returns to the same guitar sequence on the opening track in ‘Land’ – a three part movement of dream like sequences blending horror and majestic images of “horses, horses, horses….”. In this section of the album she has her own vocal overlaid on her own voice, as though she is speaking against herself even – it evokes the tossing and turning of a nightmare, and yet mixed with incredible images of horses in the water. PJ Harvey has been often compared to Smith, and I invite you to listen to ‘Horses in my Dreams’ on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (definitely on my list to bring along) as her own (I feel) interpretation of ‘Land’.
The fact that I jump to ‘Land’ reveals that I do think there are some bum tracks on this album – ‘Free Money’ being one. Other listeners did not like the reggae pastiche of ‘Redondo Beach’ but in this track lies another link to the punk fraternity and its roots. Reggae was blossoming in the mid-70s, both in the UK and US, and raised the spirit of revolution that the hippy movement brought along with it, but this time in anger. Punk is often held up as a reaction to the past, and the pomp of the 60s and 70s, rather than a natural progression of the anger and frustration with the world that was borne out of that period. Blondie, and Debbie Harry particuarly, have a foot in the 1960s optimism – Harry was a member of the hippie 60s psychedelic band Willow the Wisp. Patti Smith, like Debbie Harry also has a 60s connection. She fraternised with the beat generation poets, and started life in spoken word. On Horses she brings that poetry into song, and gives it an urgency. It’s like “you weren’t listening then, but you’d better now”. We also asked during the night if she was more a contemporary of Bruce Springsteen – well he co-wrote ‘Because the Night’ on her next album Easter, so I suppose he was. He however developed frustration of the lack of progress in the 60s into songs about the plight of the working man. Channeling his ire against the US through a different blue-collar background. No less angry, but cut from the same cloth. Patti Smith was all art-house and poetry. Of its time the poetry stands alone on this album compared to its contemporaries. Nobody was doing this cut up poetry set to angry guitars, and this is why it lays the path towards punk.
In terms of shared influences between Blondie and Smith, Redondo Beach is what Debbie Harry possibly stole from her on a night out in CBGBs (I am speculating here) and recreated in a more popular form in the 1980s to sell records. Both artists also display femininity in their music, but in different ways. Smith is more gutsy and there’s no sheen or gloss to it, and yet there’s beauty to behold. “Elegie” – the final track – is just a heartbreaking tale of loss of love “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”. It’s a stunning, choking and realistic end to a failed relationship and Smith lays it out bare on the bones. It almost leaves you a little hollow and yet changed. A bit like a failed relationship really.
When I first heard this record the opening line was really a set of gateposts for me. I listened to it but was quite fearful of its consequences and couldn’t go through ‘the gate’ to other songs. Later on I have been much more prepared to explore. I love the way music can empower and change the way we view the world. It would be wrong of me to say that opening line was the deal breaker for me in terms of my religious belief, that would come much later, but it certainly marked out an alternative school of thought. I did not need those “rules and regulations”, or at least I could question them and to me that embodies what this album represents: empowerment. “Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities.”
Rob listened: I’ve avoided ‘Horses’ until now, no longer because i’m fearful of it, but, well, because I used to be and, just because. I heard a documentary about it earlier int he year and realised it wasn’t quite the challenging art-noise I had perhaps expected (not sure why) and hearing it front to back tonight, especially in the context of Steve’s experience, it sounded great. If there’s a better opening line in rock history, I’ve not heard it, and the rest of the record that followed managed to maintain that aggression, that defiance and that sense of striking out alone. Absolutely deserves it’s place.
Tom listened: Rob hit the nail on the head when he talks about defiance – everything about this record screams it, from photo to lyrics to vocal delivery. It’s not surprising that Steve was scared of it at first; it’s an intimidating listen and its unrelentingly abrasive nature has ensured that my copy has mainly gathered dust over the course of the quarter of a century I have owned it. In fact, Horses was earmarked for our Guilty Displeasures round (and, strangely, I was on the verge of throwing this into our conversation on the night just before Steve revealed it). It is a perfect example of what I was getting at in that theme – on the face of it, Horses ticks all my boxes but there’s something about it that I find hard to embrace…maybe it’s the coldness at its core, maybe it’s to do with Smith’s vocals; I don’t know but I go back to it every so often, expecting it to click (I do admire it even if I find it hard to like) but my reaction has always been (and is still) to turn and run!