A Musical Journey with Nicklas part 12 – Patti Smith – Horses – 1975
but not mine
Meltin’ in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me”
Set to a slow seductive piano riff, this irreverent excerpt from Patti Smith’s Oath – pre-dating Horses by almost five years – is a clear signal of intent and becomes a manifest for the album, if not for a new era of rock ’n’ roll emerging from Bleecker Street. It starts almost dreamily but quickly builds momentum for a version of Them’s Gloria that is for all intents and purposes very much Patti Smith’s own. There’s not much left of the original version, just the core basics of the riff and the chorus. Patti has completely rewritten Van Morrison’s fairly tame lyrics into a beast that ooze with obsessed seduction and an almost predatory sexuality. Combined with Patti’s unique voice and vocal stylings this version of Gloria – which usually has the latin phrase In Excelsis Deo added to the title – is perhaps one of the most perfect covers in the history of rock. It’s a perfect example of how covers should be done.
Patti Smith’s version of Gloria is in many ways a startling album opener. Not only because of the blasphemous introduction but because of the way it grows, twists and bends until it quite literally explodes in some sort of punk-gospel and fades out with the same declaration of existentialist acceptance of consequence it began with. The opening line from the poem Oath derives from her renunciation of organised religion which she found to be too constricting and narrow minded. Her mother who was a Jehovah’s witness had given her a strict religious upbringing and biblical education, a fact that serves to make the declaration that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” all the more provocative.
Of course having a band of musicians as flexible and agile as Lenny Kaye on guitar, Richard Sohl on keyboards, Ivan Kral on bass and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, probably didn’t hurt much either. Lenny Kaye had been playing alongside her on poetry readings since 1971 and knew well the ins and outs of her little quirks and eccentricities vocally as well as lyrically. Shortly after Richard Sohl joined a few years later the three of them made Patti Smith’s first record, the legendary Hey Joe/Piss Factory single in 1974.
And that is really where the story of Horses begins. Whether it had originally been intended to be a more spoken word based album rather than a song based album I don’t know. But it was somewhere out of these improvised poetry readings with Ivan Kral and Jay Dee Daugherty added to the group that the songs on Horses began to take shape, being worked out live and eventually finding more and more solid structures, in most cases.
Some of the songs on Horses probably never found a definite form like “the title track” Land: which kept changing live, with improvised parts constantly being added and subtracted as it progressed in Patti’s head. For example, due to this
flexibility in form and contents the version of Land included on the bonus cd from the 30th anniversary legacy edition from 2005 is 15 minutes long (after which the band goes into a furious reprise of the chorus of Gloria for another couple of minutes), compared to the version from the original album which is a mere 9.26 minutes long, while Birdland – the other lengthy spoken word track from Horses – has remained closer to it’s original form.
—Another example of this is the growing list of dead rock stars and people she has loved and lost in one way or another added to the end of Elegie which she began doing after her come back in 1996 as a way to honour and express gratitude for what she had once had.
Horses is another one of those albums I bought between March and August of -86 based on the black and white cover photo of Patti Smith – in all her cocky androgynous glory – looking straight at you from the cover with a challenging yet seductive gaze beneath that mane of wild black hair, her almost cool and casual pose and the simple purity of the black and white photograph. Yes I’ll admit that it took about two breaths and a skipped heartbeat for me to fall madly in love with that image and I wonder if that crush has ever really faded. The photo was taken by her close friend and flatmate Robert Mapplethorpe who had only two conditions for doing the photo session. Patti Had To wear a white shirt and It Had To be clean.
As suggested by the introductory paragraphs this album not only blew my mind it quite literally knocked my socks off. And even if Horses is a supreme rock ’n’ roll album it was not the music that sent me howling at the moon like a deranged werewolf. It was the lyrics and Patti’s uncompromising – at times almost vulgar – performance of them that stopped my eyelids from blinking, caused my diaphragm to refuse my lungs to draw breath and sent my heart racing like a flock of wild horses galloping through my room; because: Oh Man … Oh Man … Oh Man!
Between the startling blasphemy of Gloria and the revelation of lyrical brilliance embedded in the title track I count the starting point of my own obsession with writing poetry. Hers are the words against which I used to weigh my own. Hers is the influence that lead me to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and to William Burroughs and … I could go on almost endlessly about Patti’s influence on my own literary expression and reading habits but this is after all not about me but about Patti Smith and her magnificent début album.
Horses is not just a rock ’n’ roll album it’s a collection of poetry set to flammable and explosive rock ’n’ roll. It is without question the best album written and recorded by a poet of Nobel Prize quality.
Not that the Polar Music Prize – which Patti Smith received in 2011 – isn’t a great honour as such but it’s more focused on the musical aspects of the career of the receivers than on the lyrical aspects. However, the motivation when it was announced that Patti Smith was awarded the Polar Music Prize pretty much says it all: “Patti Smith has demonstrated how much rock ’n’ roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in rock ’n’ roll. Patti Smith is a Rimbaud with Marshall amps.”
Most artists that have made music for as long as Patti Smith usually have periods of pure brilliance balanced against periods of abysmal lack of quality, inspiration and energy but not Patti. Instead of releasing a tired, uninspired album after Wave, just for the sake of continuity she went silent for nine years to focus on the two things that were more important to her at the time than making music, her poetry and her marriage to MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, with whom she had a son and a daughter.
After the brief return to the stage with the album Dream of Life and the hit People Have the Power she again disappeared from the public eye for another eight years. It was not until after her husband’s death that she decided to return to the stage again. This time with the more mature album Gone Again, mature but no less full of the same cocky attitude and poetic brilliance that graced her four albums in the 70s. And her voice still carries that unique wailing quality that is something of her signature, perhaps a little less vulgar in its delivery but still a truly astonishing instrument.
Yes. It is a different Patti Smith that re-emerges out of a sea of loss and grief but it has after all been 17 years since Wave and 21 years since Horses and it would be quite strange – and I’d have been very disappointed in her – if she had not grown and through growth changed her expression since then. In fact – to be blunt – had she returned trying to make “another Horses” it would’ve been little short of pathetic.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Patti Smith never fell into that abyss of lacking inspiration and artistic boredom or sloppy repetitive routine like so many other artists. And if you count Dream of Life as the low point in her artistic career – which I do – you also have to realise that while it might be a bit bleak in its delivery it is still a very good set of songs.
In my world Patti Smith is the ultimate rock ’n’ roll poet and an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration. Almost every time I listen to any of her albums I’m overwhelmed by the necessity of writing poetry. I don’t know how many poems I’ve written with her wailing voice whispering inside my head. And it all began with a blasphemous oath, a farm in new England, a shiny red tractor, a symbolic hallway, a glass of tea and “horses, horses, horses, horses / coming in in all directions / white shining silver studs with their nose in flames, / He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.”
Piss Factory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY_jW6Hg5pw
Lyrics to Piss Factory: http://www.lyricsmania.com/piss_factory_lyrics_patti_smith.html
Horses the album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv-kaY_7TGE
For the live version of Land from Royal Festival Hall, 2005: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urjAqGcYy9Q
For the lyrics to Horses: http://www.lyricsmania.com/horses_album_lyrics_patti_smith.html
 With this addition the title translates as: Glory to God on high, (which is the title of a catholic hymn dating back to at least the 3rd century referring to the words the angels sang to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth).
 her husband, her brother and the original keyboard player for the Patti Smith Group; Richard Sohl all died within a few years of each other
Av: Nicklas Ekström, Landskrona