This is regarded as a seminal punk recording from a longtime CBGB’s veteran, dubbed the “punk poetess” for her unique melding of free flowing, poetic lyrics with a basic brand of spare, energetic garage rock.
Produced by the legendary former Velvet Underground member John Cale, her excellent backing band included former rock critic turned guitarist Lenny Kaye, whose primitive guitar stabs anchored the band’s bare boned attack (other band members included drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Ivan Kral, and keyboardist Richard Sohl).
Starting out with the immortal line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” (does she know how to make an entrance or what?), it was clear from the start that this was something different, and it isn’t until later on that it becomes apparent that this song is actually a distinctive reworking of Them’s classic “Gloria.”
For one thing, with her strange yodels, ticks, and deep pitch Smith makes for a dramatic, wholly unique singer; I for one consider her a great, incredibly passionate singer even though she probably wouldn’t make it out of the first round on American Idol! Delivering literary but genuinely exciting music, Smith became a role model to many subsequent female (and male) rockers (just ask Michael Stipe), but her willingness to take chances will always mark her as a true American original.
True, this album was seen by some as self-indulgent (like Television’s Marquee Moon which this challenges as the best album from the CBGB’s scene, this is far more ambitious than your typical punk rock record and as such it’s really only tangentially related to punk) and it wasn’t exactly a runaway commercial success. Still, songs such as the reggae tinged “Redondo Beach” (the lightest track here along with “Kimberly”) and “Break It Up” (that’s Television’s Tom Verlaine superb on guitar, while its shouted chorus is also memorable) are actually quite catchy.
Meanwhile, the transcendent 9+ minute epics “Birdland” and “Land” (comprised of three separate parts, the middle section of which reprises the soul classic “Land Of A Thousand Dances”) are elevated by her intense, expressive vocals, while musically these surreal, adventurous tracks recall Bob Dylan or John Coltrane more than the Ramones.
The iconic black and white cover photo showed that Patti was a tough, thoughtful, no frills type of woman who meant serious business, a point that’s perhaps best exemplified by the thrilling rocker “Free Money,” one of my favorite songs ever.
Far from being just an “influential” album that’s much beloved by punk rockers, critics, and feminists, Horses is simply one of the best rock albums of all-time, and despite subsequent successes during a sporadic recording career (including the Bruce Springsteen co-penned hit “Because The Night”) she never again quite recaptured the intense beauty and sheer magic of this legendary debut.
It is only natural that the critics gushed all over Patti Smith’s debut – after all, weren’t these the same critics that gushed all over Trout Mask Replica six years before?
This is the exact female equivalent, except that the backing band isn’t specially trained to do the most unimaginable things possible. Patti does secure the services of a large and eccentric backing band, led by guitarist Lenny Kaye, the same one that’s responsible for the world being acquainted with Nuggets, however, these guys are more “normal” musicians, and the ‘music’ on Horses is somewhat more disciplined and somewhat more accessible than the mind-boggling dissonance of Captain Beefheart’s ‘masterpiece’.
But hey, is the truth really within these details? The essential thing is that Horses stimulates just as much unexplainable adoration AND just as much vicious hatred as Trout Mask Replica, which puts both in the “greatest mystifications in rock” ballpark, I guess.
No, the truth doesn’t even lie within our decision to count Horses as ‘punk’ or ‘not punk’. Of course, the album can be considered as ‘punk’ or ‘proto-punk’ only if you consider Captain Beefheart ‘punk’, i.e. if you divide all the music into ‘punk’ (= radical and defying tradition) and ‘anti-punk’ (= fake and illusionary, like progressive rock). But too many battles have already been fought over the term; so many, in fact, that it has already lost any possible sense. I’m not really gonna try it here. Yes, Patti Smith did have her beginnings at the CBGB scene, but heck, so did Blondie. Are Blondie punk? Aw fuck it. Lemme alone.
So what do we have here anyway? The truth is as follows. In the metaphorical and figurative sense, Horses have no melodies (like, say, Bruce Springsteen), but they’re kinda supposed to have no melodies (quite unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen). The backing band is competent, though, and the few guitar solos that accompany the beats can even be stunning – guitar wiz Tom Verlaine, later of Television fame, actually adds his own talents on one or two tracks, believe it or not.
Also, there are some deeply hidden vocal melodies on here, too: it’s not true that Patti never sings, or that she always sings offkey. ‘Redondo Beach’ and the climactic howls of ‘Gloria’ and ‘Land’ will prove you wrong, if you dare say that. But still, ‘melody’ is rather an exception on this album: unlike Dylan, Springsteen, or Leonard Cohen, Patti isn’t really pretending to be performing ‘music’. Her real idol is Jim Morrison, and not the poppy Jim Morrison of ‘People Are Strange’ fame, of course, but rather the rambling, prophetical Jim Morrison of ‘The End’ and ‘When The Music’s Over’.
Unfortunately, Patti never had even half of Jim’s talent, or, if you don’t like the word “talent”, say “a knack for converting one’s pretentious mysticism into accessible form” – and on Horses, it’s as evident as can be. First of all, her lyrics simply don’t make sense – any sense, that is. The lyrics sure sound dark and occasionally depressing (although I don’t really know if they’re supposed to be felt that way), but I have not the least idea of what is meant by the lengthy drones ‘Birdland’ and ‘Land’, for instance.
It sounds as if she’s just laying down some dream sequences on paper – dream sequences that have not the least importance to anybody. Second, the lyrics aren’t all that interesting in form, either – no clever wordgames, no weird epithets, nothing. And it goes without saying that there’s not even a single touch of humour on here. I’m not even going to give any quotes; there are no rational ways in which I could defend the lyrics. It’s simply a question of faith: if you want to believe in this stuff, please do so, but me, I’m outta here.
The saving grace, however, is that Patti is a true performer – it’s not the lyrics or the voice or the musical backing that matters, it’s the way that these lyrics are delivered to us. I mean, Patti could have been singing la-la-las for all I care; the important thing is the ‘aggressive crescendos’ that characterize most of the long songs on here. Beginning slowly and menacingly (like her take on Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’), they gradually pick up steam, with both the band and Patti launching themselves into all-out furious attack, and you can’t help but get involved until you’re so helpless you find yourself tapping your foot and shouting ‘go Johnny go, and do the watusi, and do the watusi!’ (‘Land’). Again, this is slightly reminiscent of the way Bruce Springsteen sometimes drags you in, but it’s even more fiery and even more uncompromised.
And thus, despite the fact that there are about two or three more or less accomplished songs on here (‘Redondo Beach’ – with unexpected reggae beats; the pretty closing pessimistic ballad ‘Elegie’), the rest of the performances go by without you actually noticing the time. That is, if you know what not to expect from this kind of stuff. After a few listens, the buildup on ‘Gloria’ really started dragging me in, and I don’t really give a damn about whether the song is about lesbian attraction or is just a spontaneous improvisation on the ‘Jesus died for somebody else’s sins but not mine’ line or is just a spontaneous improvisation around the Van Morrison chorus; I do give a damn about the fact that Patti turns this into a ferocious psychological (psychiatric?) drama in a way that no woman has ever dared before.
I’m also a big sucker for ‘Land’, and some of the short stuff on here (‘Free Money’ is a particular kicker, with the ‘we’ll dream it for free, free money, free money, free money…’ “chorus” as one of the bleakest, most desperate, and at the same time sceptically optimistic moments in Patti history); only the slower-moving ‘Birdland’ sounds like a possibility wasted despite the “guitar thunderstorm” played at the climactic moments against the main piano ‘non-riff’.
‘Defying dynamic nonsense’ – this is how I’d like to characterize the record, with equal emphasis on all the three points. As usual, this is the kind of album you’ll either love or hate, and normally I give these records a ‘medium’ rating. This is the case here. Cut out the hype and the historical importance: this is a great vocal-instrumental performance by an obviously inspired artist, no more and no less.
BUT! By no means follow the general critical advice about making this your first (and only?) Patti Smith purchase.
Only a completely snobby, boheme-drenched, pseudo-Artistic with a capital A kind of individual would fall in love (or, rather, pretend to fall in love) with Horses upon first listen without any preliminary preparation. Instead, save this for later – go along with the next three albums, all of which are much more accessible and yet equally true to the Horses spirit, and then come back to this “masterpiece” and tell me what you think.