Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Patti Smith: Horses (1975)


(Arista)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The dispute over how much of rock & roll is image and how much is music lingered long before and after Horses was released, but there may never have been such a perfect case study in the utopian notion that it's equal parts of both: gaze for a time at that iconic cover image and you realize that here, it's all true. Maybe more than any other album cover ever shot or designed, it seems like if you never had any idea who or what Patti Smith was, that image would be reason enough to buy or listen to the record. Smith is a fully uncompromised nonconformist, whose gaze outward from a sun-dappled corner in lord knows what nowhere invites us in but only on her own terms. Her "Group" does not appear, for her own neuroses and the complete reality of her character are the subject and the complete world of this music. So along with the bold balance of talent and impression, we have the perfect contradiction: an image-conscious, unremettingly original portrait of a woman inviting us to be seduced by the cool, steely purpose of a damn good and damn hip experience only to then be drawn into, yeah, a damn good and damn hip exploration of the darkest edges of popular music by a person who is hiding nothing. Smith is there on the front because the record is all her, fully bared, and free of excuses or tempered fear. You're either coming along for this or you aren't, and more's the pity for your own life and enrichment if you aren't.

Describing Smith's music to one who hasn't heard it seems almost inevitably reductive. Smith is a writer, a rock & roller, a poet, all of the above. She relights a flame that had been blown out somewhere around 1970 when the Velvet Underground ended their association with Lou Reed. You can draw a straight line from Reed to this, detouring a bit with the first two records by the New York Dolls, but that association is more instinctive. In general this is raw rock & roll but it's literary, like Reed, like Chuck Berry; it's no more personal than an Al Green or LaBelle album of the same period. No smarter or rawer than Jerry Lee Lewis at the Star Club. But it speaks that language in Smith's firmly, singularly analytical fashion. Her major trait is she adores rock & roll. It is her lifeblood. And the lifeblood of this music is New York, the crumb-infested stage of CBGBs, the liberating grunge outside. The seamy, slimy New York of the '70s flows through it in all of its glorious blood, gore and sleaze.

But who was Patti Smith? Who is Patti Smith now is another matter. In 1975, Smith had already wandered in and out of Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell and Blue Oyster Cult's orbit, and she embodied an almost perfect ideal of both the New York art and rock & roll lifestyles. She wrote music criticism for Creem, as did her friend and guitarist Lenny Kaye, and played far-out, artful, oddball, semi-spoken word shows at CBGB and the Mudd Club. Her muse was the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who snapped the cover photo of Horses. Smith and Kaye formed the nucleus of what would become the Patti Smith Group and issued the instantly game-changing single "Piss Factory" b/w "Hey Joe," inspired by the liberation of poetry -- specifically nineteenth century, vampiric proto-punker Rimbaud -- and rock & roll wrought upon the working stiff Smith had become to pay her rent. The rest of the band consisted of bassist Ivan Kral, the late pianist Richard Sohl and the drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. This was the Group signed by Clive Davis to record for Arista in 1975.

But Horses -- produced under fraught circumstances by John Cale, idol, legend, rock genius poet and at one time the co-leader of the Velvet Underground -- remains Smith's statement above all. It's a culmination of a twisting, some would say a queering, that had lurked in the rock subculture since before the '60s burned out. Smith was and remains a child of the most idealistic properties of '60s counterculture, and Horses more than perhaps any other punk album means to pick up with the passionate liberalism and artful sense of progress that was briefly so integral to even mainstream popular music. Smith is no flower child, but she understands the earnest yearning of the flower child. She understands more than anything, as demonstrated in her brilliant live b-side cover of "My Generation," the outrage at the center of the rock odyssey, and does so some years ahead of Johnny Rotten. She is no passive receiver of the baggage of being misunderstood. She intends to allow us to make no mistake about who she is, what she believes, where she stands, whose world we are entering.

And so it goes: "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine." This is emitted from her ashen throat after a stark tolling of the piano not much less naked or grim than the first moments of John Lennon's "Mother." It's the introduction to one of the key moments in punk rock, but that needn't be the extent of it. "Gloria" is a phenomenal peak of emotional rock music. Ostensibly a cover of Them's garage classic, it undercuts, comments upon and joyously expands it but not with the irony-overload of so many punk deconstructions of classic rock. (Check, for instance, the recorded output of Devo and the Diodes.) "Gloria" doesn't swallow itself up with reverence for its source but it does respect it, and the point is that in this dramatic, tense exploration of a raw, sexual groove Smith finds an absolute, bloody liberation. She and her band raise the stakes as highly as they can and teeter on some sort of mad precipice. At the right bits, they plunge downward but only for a moment. And through it all, Smith's singing guides us, introduces us with profound, unadulterated pleasure to the one walkin' down the street and this crazy feeling that she's gonna uh-uh make her mine.

"Gloria" is merely a prelude to the more heart-stopping expansion of a rock & roll masterpiece later on the record, the nearly unrecognizable cover of "Land of 1000 Dances," but it acts conveniently as a massive, booming bookend. The shorter, calmer selections are no less powerful and absorbing. "Redondo Beach" might be Smith's best composition, an invigoratingly catchy reggae dilution that hides for the first several listens its harrowing subject matter -- of negligent motherhood, of a public drowning, of another swallowed-up plunge into darkness. "Free Money" is a reversal of sorts, cataloging with naked honesty the -- almost supernatural -- need to provide for a loved one. The nine-minute "Birdland" is a stark, freeform moment that thrives on subtle atmosphere as much as on Smith's magical performance tics and the eclectic virtuosity of her band. It may take longer to appreciate "Kimberly" and "Break It Up," but both are crucial, the latter for its forecasting of Television's Marquee Moon (it was cowritten with Tom Verlaine, who also features on the recording), the former for its strangely calming peace, warmth, pure beauty. On repeated exposure, nearly every moment of Horses is bound to find the listener rapt with attention, longing to be in front of the band, longing to dance with them, and imagining almost tangibly Smith staring right into them.

And then the other shoe drops. The ten-minute odyssey that is "Land" is scary, demented, dangerous, one of the most dramatic and furious recordings of rock music ever released. The band seems barely to have a hold on itself, as though the track threatens to leap off and fly away taking you with it. But Cale would readily tell you, as would Smith, that crafting this indelible illusion required nearly infinite patience and calculation. It is in fact a few performances being manipulated to create one, no more unnatural an act than what Les Paul and Mary Ford were already doing circa "Lover," but it is such a magnificent and singular experience you can get delirious enough to declare it maybe the reason we invented multitrack recording. There's just little description that can do it justice -- Smith opens by speaking in a normal tone of voice and the first-timer might think nothing is amiss. But for anyone who has gone down this road before, the mere words "Boy was in a hallway drinking a glass of tea" are enough to lead you to sit up straight, to pay attention, to go quiet and prepare yourself.

In part as a result of the intricate multi-tracking of her voice, Smith punches certain phrases with a ready, enticing fervor -- "the boy looked at Johnny"; "he merged perfectly... with the hallway" -- while others seem too passionate, too upset to be so firmly prefabricated: the repetition of "started smashin' his head against the locker" comes across as genuinely unhinged. There's a real scene unfolding here, a scene of rape and murder on one end, of sensuality and music on the other, merged eerily as one into a poetic, violent conflation of emotions that nevertheless comes to us under the most direct and unfettered purpose. Johnny Rotten would approach all this a few times on some of the Sex Pistols' singles, when he would lift the curtain behind his wild threat and reveal only more threat still. But Smith is twice as scary, twice as alluring because the more crazed she seems, the more real she gets to us. Her character Johnny gets it driven into him by an unchecked male force hard to define -- and as the drama increases, as the tension becomes so great we can hardly stand it, Johnny lifts himself up and tears off his leather jacket and answers the question of whether he can't give us nothin' but surrender. It's all sudden, everything that happens here. "Suddenly / Johnny..." and the band goes as manic as Smith -- as either of the two maybe three Smiths -- in the background, and you don't think it can get any more intense and unbearable and then it does, and what happens then?

What happens this is dancing -- absurd, glorious, every bit of progressive dross and singer-songwriterly wank washed away until all we're left with is rock & roll, a drumbeat elevated into the godlike stature it deserves. The pure, fuck-bomb filthy goddamn shit that made all of the pop culture worth caring about happen in the first fucking place. Don't care if Smith's poetry busies it up because all she's doing is aligning herself with it, and she's the show here. Do ya know how to pony / like boney maroney? Oh, it's beautiful, and how it swells into erotic oblivion then caresses its way back and back and folding back until, yeah, just a little drumbeat, just a dance... to a simple... rock & roll song. Oh, it's the kind of moment when whatever else is happening in the world is superfluous. Even "Elegie," the last song. I'm sure it's a lovely song. I've heard it a hundred times probably. Can't remember a thing about it. All I remember is my jaw still agape from the thousandth time through all thousand dances. All I can think to do is point to the previous track and say "we built it, let's take it over."

I have nothing firsthand to offer you with regard to how Horses changed anything. It's clearly a moment that bred much of what we now regard as punk and new wave, but it's harsher, less accessible than the Ramones or Blondie or Talking Heads or even, overseas, the Damned or the Clash. It feels like part of no real moment, like a moment unto itself, and it seems almost gauche to attach all of these outer events to it. One thing I can say personally is that of all the albums I owned when I was a teenager -- and it's one I bought chiefly because of the bands who named it as a great influence, so many thanks to them -- it is maybe the one that annoyed my parents the most. And it is here, even beyond Smith's sensitivity, her band's perfect assemblance of groove, punching precision and atmosphere, and the lyricism and grace of it all, that Horses still seems like a truly great achievement, one that does everything it meant to: leather jackets and simple beats and that odd, insistent, constant propulsion of New York in those days -- it is so god damn young, a pure rock & roll experience, one of the best we can have, and it is a thrill and a pleasure to live in a world in which it was once possible.

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