What’s surprising about Patti Smith’s Horses is how subversive it still is, despite its having long since been canonized as one of rock’s most important and influential works. Because Smith set out to collapse so many dichotomies at once—professional/amateur, art/commerce, high culture/low culture, original material/covers, insider/outsider, pretentious/profound, prose/poetry, eloquent/inarticulate, and of course the big ones, male/female, gay/straight—the album maintains its richness and potency even in the face of the perpetual memorializing. It remains slippery, dangerous, despite attempts to reify it into a universally admired rock monument. Though the opener, “Gloria”, with its famous first line (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”) and its gender-bending appropriation of a rock classic, has been so frequently heralded as to become a virtual blueprint for calculated audaciousness, it still amazes; each listen, ever more laden with the burden of the song’s notoriety and familiarity, nevertheless makes the song’s perfectly choreographed accomplishment seem all the more astounding and unlikely. It still makes lust and ambition primal, tangible, inseparable; “the atmosphere where anything’s allowed”—you know exactly where that is while the song plays.
On Horses virtually every choice made in the production, the music, the lyrics presents a threat, poses a challenge to a comfortable, received opinion—even the received opinion of its own brilliance. However, few of these challenges come across as plain mistakes that we need to rationalize away to protect what has become a precious icon. Instead, whether adopting a gentle laid-back reggae rhythm for a harrowing tale of suicide and inconsolable remorse on “Redondo Beach”, or fusing a gay-rape narrative to “Land of a 1,000 Dances” to delineate the farther reaches of the aggression implicit in rock and roll, its “sea of possibilities”, or exploding into gibberish at the long-delayed climax of “Birdland” just long enough to let you hear the difference between total loss of restraint and control in the modulation of her voice, Horses offers a seemingly endless supply of unsettling moments that cry out for interpretation even as they feel immediately right and devastatingly effective. Only its most awkward instant, when in the free-form spew of “Land” Smith acknowledges with a cheerleader chant the influence of Rimbaud (if only she would have emulated him in silencing herself after an auspicious early career; we might have been spared “People Have the Power”), seems forced and false.
As the apocalyptic moments described in the lyrics begin to pile up—“The sky will split / and the planets will shift, / balls of jade will drop / and existence will stop” (from “Kimberly”), “I fell on my knees / Atmosphere broke up, the boy reappeared, / I cried take me please” (from “Break It Up”), “All the fire is frozen yet still I have the will / Trumpets, violins, I hear them in a distance” (from “Elegie”)—the album begins to seem like ad hoc eschatology conceived at the level of the individual. The preponderance of these images allows each instance to embody its own distinctive, convincing tone, reminding us in how many different ways the world can end for us, and how often.
It’s such a great record, you’d be willing buy it twice, and now the 30-year anniversary of its initial release affords you that chance. Baiting the hook further is a companion disc that features Smith performing the album in its entirety in 2005 in London with a band including Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty and Tom Verlaine (all of whom played on the original), and Flea (?) on bass and trumpet. Little of the record’s original arrangements are altered; the results feel like a recital, and the rapt, eagerly receptive audience seems to domesticate the power of the songs, dulling their critical edge. Horses is so visceral at a personal level, demanding so much from individual listeners, that having the option of merging with a complacent crowd celebrating it as a received masterpiece ultimately sells the album short. Smith, sounding slightly gruffer but in no way diminished, tries to keep the songs vital, selling the lyrics a little harder, directing emphasis onto different images, different moments. These shifts make it worth listening to, but on the whole the live performance remains a gimmick; its interest lies only in the way its divergences underscore the brilliance of the original.