Patti Smith’s “Horses”

Patti Smith's Horses album cover

I listened to Patti Smith‘s 1975 LP “Horses” for the past seven days. There’s a lot to learn here as a songwriting musician. I’ve heard about Smith for years;  I have fans as friends; Yet, this week was the first time I’ve heard her work, and  I love it. It sounds incredibly like 1970s New York City, sitting somewhere between the sound and intelligence of Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and the attitude of the Ramones. This album features fantastic lyrics, great music, great production, and cool vocals.

The lyrics star as the focus of “Horses”. With this debut album, Patti Smith produced a rock n’ roll version of the way beat poets like Jack Kerouac gave poetry readings with jazz accompaniment. She arrests your attention within the first twenty seconds; “Gloria” opens the album with the powerful line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” This is not a cover of Them’s “Gloria” or even a re-interpretation. Smith uses the classic garage rock song as source material they way an artist uses an image in collage. Considering that “Gloria” is one of the most covered songs in rock, the use of the chorus gives the audience something they know to keep them invested with the first listen. However the refrain may be using “gloria” as a word rather than a name ironically connects the chorus to the opening line.

In the song, Kimberly, Patti speaks about the desire to keep her little sister safe. She does this through an overt narrative of being in a barn with her baby sister during a storm. The lightning is frightening, so the older sister distracts her baby sister and covers her to hide the flashes. With lines like “I knew your youth was for the taking, fire on a mental plane,” there is suggestion that she’s worried about more than a storm during her sister’s infancy. A verse towards the end of the song, more spoken than sung, demonstrates Smith’s great command of poetry and imagery:

So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me
Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as the lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack

The lyrics are perhaps at their most dense and intense in “Land” where they also provide the album title “Horses”. The tell a troubling story about a young man named Johnny being raped in the hallways of what is probably a high school during the mid-1960s. Then later the speak has a romantic encounter with Johnny.

The lyrics incorporate several references to Land of a Thousand Dances. I consider these lines as drifting in from down the hall. Perhaps the hallway scene takes place during a school dance. She layers these references to dances of the 1950s and 60s with the rape; Names of dances like the Twist and the Watusi become descriptions of the act. Johnny’s mind escapes into another world, his assailants become as horses. After they finish off on Johnny, an angel or somebody named Angel taunts him “Oh, pretty boy, can’t you show me nothing but surrender?” Then the song further explodes poetic chaos.

There’s ambiguity and layering references to film noir, teen dances, sex, romance, rape, rock n roll, and the poet Rimbaud. They are cut together like a William S. Burroughs cut-up. I sensed this as a long time-Burroughs fan that has experimented with cut-ups many times. However, I also have read this week that Smith was inspired by the novels of Burroughs. Similarly, she has layered vocals so that disconnected lines interact with each other; Interactions like these cause our brains to interpret and fill the space between with meaning. I have always loved methods of layering and creating juxtaposition in all forms of art, and this song is a brilliant example.

And after a description of Johnny leaning against a parking meter, with a vision of him humping it, she ends with a vision of a man dancing to a simple rock n roll song, in the sheets. Is this the bed where Johnny screams out and nobody hears “the butterfly flapping in his throat”? This to is unclear. Is the “simple rock n roll song a Land of a Thousand Dances, or some other song? It’s most likely not self-referential; Of all that “Land” is, it’s definitely not a simple song. To me, this may suggest rock n roll itself as the savior of troubled or misfit youth. In the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N Roll“, Lou Reed described how “Despite all the amputations, You know you could just go out and dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station.” Patti Smith closes this troubled tale of Johnny with:

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock n roll

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