Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Patti Smith - Horses

A poem has a backdrop of silence, while lyrics mesh with melody, rhythm, and instrumentation. It's that silence in poetry that has the most marked impact; a silence so noticeably missing in an album like Horses.

"Gloria," the interpolation of Van Morrison's old chestnut with Smith's own "In Excelsis Deo," may be the single most audacious introductory statement in rock history. Opening with the line "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," Patti Smith's Horses was hell-bent on liberating rock 'n' roll from its structural and constraints. The debate on whether or not she succeeded is moot, simply because reaching for the moon and stars is the stuff of which great art is made.

The vigorous grandeur that is Horses comes from Patti Smith's persistent emphasis on lyrics, on the poetry without the silence. Dylan and Paul Simon had already brought poetry alive in their songs, but Patti took it a step further, to the point of using the lyrics and her singularly evocative delivery as a structuring principle for the rhythm and pace of the tracks. "Birdland" starts as a quiet piano-based ballad with Patti's narrative about a boy at his father's funeral looking at the sky:


It was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.
Then he put his head in the crux of his arm
And he started to drii-iiift, DRII-IIIFT to-OOO the beeEElly of a shii-iiip. 

With that one word, "drift," Smith goes from speaking to singing while the song drifts, rocking like a ship, the guitar building to Dionysian revelry - scattered "like roses" on top of the beat, the beat, the beat. Poetry is the sole rhythm, the soul rhythm - moving, moving towards the epiphany of the shaman bouquet, growing and exploding in furious repetition, repetition and then, the river of glass, the helium raven, and up up up up to the shaman's final incantation: "Sha da do wop, da shaman do way, sha da do wop, da shaman do way.”

Horses is a deeply rooted and spiritual journey, even if it doesn't sound like one (iconic punk albums rarely never do). In Just Kids (her biopic about life with photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe), Patti writes, "You know, I wasn't a stranger to hard times. I used to read the Bible — well, I still do, but when I was young I read the Bible quite a bit — and by Christ's example, he embraced poverty. So, all of my role models, whether it was the disciples, or John the Baptist or Arthur Rimbaud, slept under the stars." She dismisses the notion that the godmother of punk reading the Bible might strike some as a surprise. "I don't know why," she says. "The very first word on my very first record is 'Jesus.'" Despite the full line as quoted above, Smith says the negation doesn't much matter. "I still invoke him as an entity to reckon with."

I know Patti Smith only in retrospect, having just a cursory listen in the 70s and that on radio with the Springsteen cover "Because the Night." It wouldn't be until Wave that I really sat down and listened. I remember the moment when I first heard "Frederick" and "Dancing Barefoot." I was 15, smoking a bowl in a friend's garage, and suddenly everything paled in comparison. My heart will eternally belong to Joni Mitchell, but on that day, Patti Smith ripped out my soul. I listened to Easter next, and on the third day, Horses. I was young, but how had I missed it? Horses is an AM10.