Wow In Music – Horses
Kobus Cilliers | On 15, May 2019
Pipping the Ramones’ first album to the post by five months, Horses is generally considered not just one of the most startling debuts in rock history but the spark that ignited the punk explosion.
Exactly forty-three years ago this month, on December 13, Arista Records released Patti Smith’s debut album. The historical importance of Horses is inarguable, above and beyond any particular aesthetic considerations. It introduced, fully formed, a daring new mystic voice in popular music. It referenced a classic persona, that of the androgynous poet/rocker, and gave it an exciting twist: the poet/rocker in question was a (Principle 13) woman. And for listeners outside of New York, it was the first real full-length hint of the artistic ferment taking place in the mid-’70s at the juncture of Bowery and Bleecker.
The word “punk” would later be attached to everything CBGB-related, but Horses is more punk in its attitude than in its sound. It takes a cabaret approach to rock, and by cabaret, the album is more Brecht/Weill rather than the Sweeney Sisters. Richard Sohl’s graceful keyboard work drives the arrangements more than Lenny Kaye’s scratchy guitar (Principle 37), and although the band can work up a good head of steam, it tends to do so in a knowingly theatrical way. This music has a deeper affinity to Van Morrison lapsing into animal noises on “Listen to the Lion” than to the primal power of the Ramones.
While we’re on the subject of animal noises, it must be acknowledged that Horses is not always a pleasant listening experience (Principle 22). Smith didn’t intend it to be. Over the course of its 44 minutes, she (Principle 38) bleats like a goat, yelps like a cat whose tail has been stepped on, howls like an abandoned toddler and pounds her chest while she sings to give her voice a guttural gulp. All for what? Like a shaman (a word and a concept she loves), she’s always reaching for the transcendent, trying to slip past the borders of her own self, enter the spirits of others, and meld with the mysterious force that binds us all together. She doesn’t always attain this transcendence, but she knows where she can find it: in rock and roll.
That is the abiding message of “Gloria” and “Land,” the garage-recitative suites that are Horses’ two centerpieces. The message is conveyed more through the music’s overall mood, the (Principle 19) swells and surges of the band, and the sound of Smith’s voice—(Principle 37) harsh edge, yearning center—than it is through her words (which, truth be told, verge on (Principle 2) gibberish at times, especially during “Land”). And that message further confirms that this album could only have been made by people who were young and starstruck in the ’60s.
It’s true, you don’t have to be familiar with “Gloria” as rendered by Them (or any number of others) or “Land of 1,000 Dances” as rendered by Wilson Pickett (ditto) to appreciate what’s going on here. But it sure helps a lot if you are, and if you subscribe to the notion that three chords and the truth are really all that matters.
These holy, orgiastic moments are necessary to (Principle 8) counterbalance the rest of the disc, much of which – “Redondo Beach,” “Birdland,” “Break It Up,” “Elegie” – is fixated on death. One curious irony about Horses is that an album so closely associated with the beginning of something (punk) is itself so concerned with endings. “I think it’s sad, it’s much too bad, that our friends can’t be with us today,” is how closing song Elegie ends. When Smith sang those words, the foremost person in her mind was Jimi Hendrix. Horses was recorded, after all, in the studio he’d built, Electric Lady on 8th Street; Smith had met him there at the studio’s opening party, only weeks before he died. But she was also singing for other departed counterculture heroes like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones. She and her baby boomer peers felt, with some justification, that their lives had already been permanently altered by loss.
Those closing lines, however, for me still pale into insignificance relative to the album’s iconic opening line. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” is about as good as it gets in terms of an announcement of your arrival. One might go so far as to say that Smith’s entire career was made in these first few seconds. A Ground-Zero, Principle 13 twist that sparked a quite literal musical revolution.