#44 on Rolling Stone's Greatest 500 Albums List
That’s Patti there on the cover of Horses, a suited cool-as motherfucker. She's handsome, isn’t she? An angular, masculine reworking of some far more feminine portrait. She’s Frank Sinatra, except she wants to be Aimee Anouk. All it takes is a quick dip into her music and one realizes she is both at once. A sort of suave, darkly attractive figure who can melt panties and leave men scratching their heads.
She’s the kind of protagonist that we all want to relate to. She’s beyond gender.
Horses is a document to this epicene mystique, and it plays out like a tug of war: sex and spirituality, life and death, high art and gutter stances. To some degree, Patti Smith simply wants to be a three-chord rock and roll monster wearing wrap-around shades. But she knows well enough that her words and ideas are bound to betray her. She’s much more than that.
Right away, "Gloria" throws out that defining defiant statement of, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." However, it’s probably the rollicking British blues swagger which yanks us up out of our seat. At worst, it's a sloppy cover, a testament to the rough-edged musicianship tacked on to Smith's gushing poetics. But "Gloria" is still alarming, not because it rocks or because it shocks. The most alarming thing about "Gloria" is the whole subtle turnabout. She sings a song about Gloria and Marie and Ruth and she makes you believe without a much of a show.
On Horses, all Patti Smith has to do is squeal a little squeal in her squeaky vocal delivery and moan, "Oh, she was so good," and she squishes every over-handed attempt at sexual ambiguity by any androgynous frontman who ever existed.
Horses branches off after the chord-mashing rock and roll of "Gloria," into the lilting syncopations of Redondo "Beach," which reflects a notable reggae influence, and then into the feverish "Birdland." With "Birdland," we get a taste of Smith’s rabid lyrical ability at full tilt. It’s her strong suit. Though just about everything on Horses is poetry in a rock and roll context, "Birdland" and "Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (de)" subjugate rock and roll and place it within a poetic context. And while the former has precedent to Patti Smith, arguably the latter is very much an in-progress birth on Horses.
"Birdland" plays off a rapid-fire refrain based on Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams. It’s a memoir written by the son of Wilhelm Reich, a scientist condemned and imprisoned by the Feds for communist ties and his odd studies into human emotion. Little Peter watches the sky slip. "It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars," Patti whispers over Richard Sohl’s falling piano melody. It culminates in a free-form collision, a Mohammed Ali punch of feedback and word, Patti hollering, "I’ll go up, take me up, I’ll go up, go up, up, up."
A few tracks later, "Land" kicks in. Although it begins with the spoken-word rape of Smith’s "Johnny" alter ego, it transforms into a sort of medley featuring a cover of "Land of a Thousand Dances" interspersed with the intense narrative. The juxtaposition is beat poetry versus a simple rock and roll beat. Can you pony like Boney Maroney or will you drown to death in your own spittle and vomit, like a real rock and roll idol? As fine a piece of poetry as you’ll ever see in pop music.
The album bridges the gap between the improvised spoken-word tunes with a couple exceptional songs that are simply overshadowed by the towering art-rock of "Birdland" and "Land." The punchy rhythms of "Kimberly" allude to forthcoming new wave tongues, while "Break It Up" is an instance of the incestual 70's New York rock scene. Tom Verlaine’s guitar yawls out in those unmistakable cries that would coat Television’s Marquee Moon a couple years later.
Another familiar New Yorker provides the work behind the boards. Although John Cale is certainly a more than capable producer, to call Horses haphazard wouldn’t be far from the truth. There’s some familiar Cale mannerisms about it, from the slight drone to "Kimberly" to the little auditory experiments all over but mostly, his approach can be seen as a hands-off. Compared to Horses, Smith’s next two albums could be considered lush but less evocative of the kind of improvisation the band was capable of. This underproduction lives on today as one example of the seemingly do-it-yourself musical aesthetic that would inspire dozens of amateurish followers.
In the end, though, Horses is not the kind of album that one ought to look through any time frame or in any specific context. It’s not about influence, gender politics or anything else, really. But if it’s gotta be about something, Horses is all about immediacy and the fine balance between seemingly exclusive ideas. Contradiction and conflict. It’s about getting in that ship and going to that place where you are not human.
Or at least that’s what Patti Smith wants us to believe. And I’m pretty willing to buy into that.