Thursday, September 27, 2007

PATTI SMITH, Horses Horses
Uncut,winter 2005

Some rock records from the ancient past can still cut through purely on their sonic properties, as blasts of time-defying and context-transcending energy. The three Stooges albums spring to mind, as do Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” and “Anarchy” (but not quite “God Save the Queen”). Other rock recordings release their riches only in tandem with a process of historicizing and contextualization. Dylan is a prime example (can anyone honestly argue that “Like A Rolling Stone” still makes it as just pure sound, without all the writing around it and reading into it?) Horses likewise fits this second category of epoch-defining but therefore epoch-bound classics, where you have to reconstruct the original context to get any sense of the record's momentous impact and import. A “naked” listen won’t quite do it. But equally, the more you learn about the artist and the work, the more interesting and audacious Horses seems.

A poet before she was a rocker, Patti Smith worshipped Rimbaud. Horses actually reminds me of a totally different kind of poetry, though--T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a work so limned with references to mythology you have to read its footnotes to extract its full meaning. Horses, similarly, is an exercise in rock mythography that depends on what preceded it, the whole Sixties adventure. It’s the product of a period of aftermath, pervaded with historical consciousness of the sort that doesn’t exist during the rush of a time when history is actually being made. Patti Smith has less in common with her New York comrades Television (whose music wasn’t about the Sixties so much as of it--an acid-rock flashback) than she does with Bowie and Springsteen, two artists who became stars by assimilating earlier stars. Similarly Smith studied Dylan and Keith Richards, absorbing their stances and mannerisms.

Horses teems with invocations, channelings, and honorings. It opens with “Gloria”, a gloriously surly, horny swagger of white R&B originally recorded by Van Morrison’s group Them, but achieving its largest fame as the song most widely covered by American garage punk bands. Smith added the immortal intro about Jesus Christ “dying for somebody’s sins but not mine,” making for an unsurpassably grand entrance to rock's world stage. Yet covering “Gloria” is best understood as an act of rock criticism (Smith and her guitarist Lenny Kaye both moonlighted as rock writers). It distils into a few minutes of rough-hewn excitement the entire “argument” of Nuggets, Kaye’s famed compilation of mid-Sixties garage punk. Nuggets itself paralleled the heretical re-reading of rock history then being vaunted by Lester Bangs, who hailed the garage bands for their primal teen spirit and pulp simplicity, a raw power lost in the post-Sgt Pepper’s turn towards sophistication. The studio Horses (this reissue’s first disc) now comes book-ended with cover versions. It closes with ‘My Generation,’ originally the B-side of Patti’s debut single “Hey Joe” (sensing a pattern here?). Another slice of ancestor-worship-cum-patricide, the song ends with Patti’s battle cry “we created it, let’s take it over.” The “it” being rock’n’roll, (in a Seventies coma, thanks to corporate bland-out and artistic burn-out, or so the Bangsian proto-punk narrative maintained), while the “we” lies somewhere between “the people” and “youth of today.”

Horses’ conceptual heart resides in three iconographic songs that together attempt to “work through” the legacy of the Sixties. Featuring Tom Verlaine’s aching peals of lead guitar, “Break It Up” is like a lustrous chip off the Marquee Moon block. Lyrically, it’s based on a Smith dream in which she saw Jim Morrison trapped in marble, literally petrified by having been turned into an icon. She exhorts him to smash through the stone and let his spirit fly free (presumably to irrigate and renew rock, like "The Wasteland"'s Fisher King). “Elegie,” the original album’s closer, is a straightforward lament for Hendrix. In between “Break” and “Elegie” comes the stunning song-suite “Land,” which is haunted by both dead Jimmys. “Horses,” the first section, nods to “Horse Latitudes”, The Doors’ pioneering exercise in rock-poetry-meets-studio-weirdness. “Land of A Thousand Dances” invokes rock’n’roll’s early dance crazes, implicitly connecting the teenage frenzy of the Watusi to the mystic delirium of voodoo trance-dancers, whirling dervishes and ecstastic Protestant cults like the Shakers. With its nebulous texture-waft and multi-tracked whispers, the suite’s final section “La Mer (de)” pays oblique tribute to to Hendrix’s oceanic “1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be”.

“Land” is the most radical piece of music on Horses. But the album’s emotional core deals not with Smith’s rock family tree of godstar ancestors but with her actual real-world folks. A slightly shaky take on reggae, “Redondo Beach” conveys the mounting despair of someone who’s literally lost their lover (on a crowded beach). The song’s real-world inspiration was the disappearance of Smiths’ sister Linda after the pair had a row. “Kimberley” is a tender recollection of her other sister, whom Smith cuddled as a newborn while watching a blazing barn. Most touching of all is “Free Money”, based in her experience of growing up poor in New Jersey and memories of her mother fantasising about winning the lottery. “Oh baby, it would mean so much to me,” yearns Smith, as visions of life without restriction or want dance before her eyes. Kaye’s frantic double-time rhythm chords escalate the urgency and Smith starts percussively incanting images of abundance and freedom, propelling the song in an irresistible rush towards climax. Horses’s most moving song (emotionally and physically), "Free Money" is also the most conventional. And its subject matter--New Jersey working stiffs dreaming of escape--helps explain Smith’s later convergence with Springsteen-style all-American populism, which reached fruition with the Bruce-penned smash “Because the Night”

And then there’s the Horses live remake… As much as one deplores the industry trend of repackaging everybody's favourites in order to induce you to purchase things you already own, it must be conceded that this re-rendition from last year’s Smith-curated Meltdown festival often surpasses in ferocity the somewhat clean-and-tidy sounding studio original. Strangely, the improvised guitarnoise plus freeform poetry epic “Birdland” is reproduced with disconcerting exactness. But the 17 minute take on “Land” clocks in at twice the original length and includes radically expanded and revised lyrics, although it does detour into an annoyingly redundant, if rampant-sounding, reprise of of “Gloria”. “My Generation” is also torched excitingly. At song’s end Smith doesn’t repeat the original “we created it” rallying call, but adapts it for a musical present that's way more bereft and rudderless than 1975 (whose denizens didn’t know they were born, honestly, did they?). “My generation, we had dreams, we had dreams, man… and we fucking created George Bush,” she roars--the logic shaky, the passion loud and clear. “New generations, rise up… take the streets. Make change. The world is yours. Change it, change it.”



Religion is a huge thread running through your work, figuring both as a source of imagery (the album Easter, for instance) and in the larger sense of rock itself as a belief system, a crusade.

“The artist Dan Graham made a film called Rock My Religion and I totally understand that impetus. For me rock’n’roll, all through the Sixties, was a true salvation. Growing up in rural South Jersey, I was estranged from culture. Rock gave voice to my problems, it gave voice to my political ideas, and it was a major source of identification and structure. By the time I moved to New York in the early Seventies, though, some of greatest voices were snuffed out. Dylan had retreated, Joan Baez disappeared somewhere, Hendrix and Morrison were dead. Rock wasn’t engaged in social communication anymore, it had become stadium-oriented, this showbiz lifestyle of limousines and cocaine and glitter. To me that wasn’t rock’n’roll. Rock was people-oriented, it wasn’t supposed to go Hollywood. As a citizen, I was very concerned about what was happening to my genre. I felt like the intimacy and the political voice--the revolutionary voice--of rock’n’roll was getting watered down. So Horses was meant be like Paul Revere riding through the American countryside, waking up the people, saying “the British are coming!” Like, “the revolution is on, don’t sleep through it!”

Alongside religion, your other favorite metaphor for rock’n’roll is war. Hence the Patti Smith Group’s affinity with Detroit rock’n’roll soldiers the MC5 and your self-description on Horses as “some misplaced Joan of Arc.”

“Joan was an inspiration in terms of being someone who fearlessly went after what she believed in, even with all the odds against her. She was poor, couldn’t read or write, and a female during the Middle Ages. She had nothing going for her in terms of her mission, yet she accomplished it. And it’s not just a legend, it’s actual historical fact.”

Despite being friends with William S. Burroughs and a fan of Arthur Rimbaud, you’ve never had much time for that side of rock’n’roll that involves druggy debauchery. Is this a puritanical streak, or part of the military discipline thing?

“I didn’t really drink, I didn’t smoke, and I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t even smoke pot until about 1977, when I got interested in Rastafarianism. My body chemistry has always been so speedy and so psychedelic anyway. My friend Robert Mapplethorpe always shuddered at the thought of me taking acid, because he thought I was such a naturally stoned person. But the other reason is that I just didn’t like the suburbanization of drugs. As a kid I romanticized them as something sacred and secret, reserved for Native American shamen or jazz musicians. Substances should be for spiritual experiences, I thought, not just recreation. I didn’t expect to arrive in New York and see all these suburban kids walking around wasted!”

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