Labelling Patti Smith as a Punk artist would be a little bit like describing Bruce Springsteen as being avant-garde. Some critics have even gone so far as to crown her the “Queen of Punk”, as if she were a member of musical royalty (I’d be interested to know what Patti herself thinks of that). But that’s where I have a problem. Jim Morrison was just as rebellious, and rambunctious, yet no-one ever called him a punk, so what gives? I guess it was all about timing. Had Smith been around in the 60’s, she would probably have fraternized with Grace Slick and Jimi Hendrix, telling the audience at Woodstock to bring down the government and get our troops out of Vietnam. Instead she was hanging out at CBGB’s in the early 1970’s wowing, and sometimes shocking the crowds with her wild and energetic performances while proving that rock and roll was not all about the male phallus.
Now there are other albums by Smith which I think are just as good as Horses, but since this is where it all started, it seems only befitting that we should delve into what is universally recommended by critics, who often regard it as not just one of the preeminent LPs of the year in which it was recorded, but also one of the most original rock albums ever made.
We begin with an interesting proposition, one which just about every critic must refer to, and that is the very first line that Smith articulates; “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”. And with that we’re off with Patti’s highly energetic and overtly sexual remake of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”. The next track “Redondo Beach” (about a lesbian suicide) is a semi-reggae number but as a composition quite unremarkable overall. “Birdland” is all thoughtful words and plaintive piano by Richard Sohl, where Smith recites her Beat-like extraterrestrial poetry while Lenny Kaye plays expressive abstract notes on his guitar in the background. The whole thing is quite moving, in a spiritualist kind of way, but you’d have to be in the mood, considering that it lasts for over nine minutes.
On “Free Money” Smith rocks out in a more (relatively) conventional manner, proving that she had nothing against a melodic chorus or two. “Kimberly” is all pulsating bass, and not really one could call a song as such, more of a vehicle for Patti’s poetry, where she sings the lines “And I know soon that the sky will split/And the planets will shift/Balls of jade will drop and existence will stop”. “Break it Up” is a tune Smith co-wrote with Tom Verlaine, of Television, and which has some wonderfully insane, almost schizophrenic guitar, that is primitive and yet sophisticated all at once.
The LP draws to a close with “Land”, a multi-part rock and roll suite, and which is a desperate plea (on Patti’s part) for a state of ultimate expression, be it poetic, emotional or otherwise. A search for reality, and yet full of rape, dysfunction, along with every other societal defect. Taken as pure rock, it’s wondrous. On a lyrical and intellectual level however, the listener’s true relationship is changed.
And now we finally end with “Elegie”, an atmospheric ode to Jimi Hendrix, where she quotes words from the man himself: “Trumpets and violins I hear them in the distance… too bad that our friends can’t be with us today”. And in that I share her sadness.
Patti Smith is nothing less than a poetess, the Rimbaud of Rock (just look at the cover), whose musical idols were Hendrix and Jim Morrison, which explains why Horses is far more diverse than most other ‘punk’ albums of the era. Smith’s lyrics/verses may be difficult to decipher, but like a lot of poetry it works on multiple levels, allowing the listener to arrive at their own interpretation rather than having it all spelt out in front of them. Smith uses her words like weapons to take down her enemies (and there are no shortage of those I can tell you), or as a way to immortalise precious moments, as any poet tries to do. If Horses is not entirely a work of art, it certainly comes close at times, where across the length of the LP; the listener is taken on an extraordinary journey which runs the whole gamut of human emotions, from the visceral to the downright abstract. Whether you love this album or loath it with a passion, what is undeniable is Patti’s commitment to her work and all that she believes in. And if she is indeed the Queen of Punk, then long may she reign.