One of the most vivid and enduring products of that most exciting time and place in American popular music—New York City in the latter half of the 1970s—Patti Smith’s 1975 debut album Horses is unquestionably among the most academic of all great rock ‘n’ roll records, and thus as ripe for book-length dissertation as any.
With the pop-geek fantasia that is Continuum’s ongoing 33 1/3 series allowing various academics, critics and musicians to write at such a length on their favorite notable albums, it was inevitable that Horses, with its classic status matched by an endlessly fertile grounds for analysis, would become an eventual subject. Fittingly, author Philip Shaw—a teacher of 19th century literature and critical theory at the University of Leicester—provides a thorough reading of the album that is significantly heavier on deconstructions of Smith’s knotty lyrics than the fanboy-ish enthusiasm that characterizes many entries in the series.
This is not to suggest that Shaw lacks passion for his subject matter. The book opens with the writer cheerfully recalling his barely-teenaged self’s initial discovery and obsession with the record before going on to declare, with the kind of deliberately blind assertiveness exclusive to political pundits and music fans in thrall of their favorite artists: “Horses, released by Arista records in November 1975, is the greatest rock album of all time: end of story.”
That Shaw immediately goes on to draw the line between critical assessments of pop music and classic poetry, arguing that the former is “more visceral, more in tune with the promptings of the heart than the deliberations of the head,” is singularly appropriate given that what Horses represents is perhaps the ultimate merging of the two art forms, an album that Shaw declares from the outset “is about what happens when we listen as well as read.” If his text ends up reading rather more like literary than music criticism, it is because Horses is the rare rock album that genuinely warrants such high-minded consideration.
Given the richness of the subject matter at hand, what is most surprising about Shaw’s text is how little of it, proportionally speaking, is explicitly dedicated to Horses itself. Little of it is actually given to the kind of song-by-song examination of the album that is the favored format among many 33 1/3 writers, with Shaw instead spending its bulk constructing a sort of mini-biography of Smith’s early years. This background, however, turns out to provide much necessarily illumination on the personal complexities that would eventually come to inform her work as much as any artistic influence, never more vital than on the album in question.
Most crucially, a quick tour through Smith’s childhood reveals a rich dichotomy between her Jehovah’s Witness mother and freethinking atheist father that would not only manifest itself directly in her music (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” goes Horses’ famous opening declaration, immediately stating which side of the divide she has fallen on), but would also go on to provide the essential tension at the core of her life and art. While initially offering a reprieve from the stifling nature of her mother’s faith, facilitating what Shaw beautifully describes as Smith’s “endeavor to supplant the illusory ecstasies of religion with the materialist excesses of the body,” the wild sexual abandon of classic rock ‘n’ roll would later come to subvert, for Smith, the authoritative institution of poetry, as well.
Beginning her career as a notable poet in the New York underground of the early ’70s (two published volumes of verse predate her work as a musician), it was not until her collaborations with guitarist Lenny Kaye that she discovered the unique power of merging the visceral power of rock ‘n’ roll with the more cerebral resonance of her poetry. The roots of this innovation are most perfectly conveyed in Smith’s own words, upon her reflection of seeing a Rolling Stones concert at the height of their Exile On Main Street-era peak:
What was foremost not the music but the naked performance.
It was [Jagger’s] presence and his power to hold the audience in his palm. He could have spoken some of his best lyrics and had the audience just as magnetized. I saw the complete future of poetry.
In recognizing rock ‘n’ roll, and in particular the sheer dynamism of rock ‘n’ roll performance, as “the new poetry”, Smith was now able to find her niche within this new art form, granting her esoteric verse an audience that might otherwise never have found it among the patrons of CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. Fair to say, perhaps, that Smith was simply in the right place at the right time, but more accurate to suggest that she was tapping into the free-form zeitgeist of the late ’70s New York punk scene, her rock poetry fitting in among the back-to-basics three-chord sprints of the Ramones, the ironic pop glamour of Blondie, the garage-y swagger of Television, and the art school intellectualism of the Talking Heads — much more by virtue of how unlike each other the lot sounded, rather than any kind of strict stylistic unity.
While Shaw never ignores the importance of Smith’s rock influences, granting Jagger, Hendrix, Dylan and the rest their due, his focus remains, for the most part, on her writing. Devoting significant space to analysis of her early poems (most notably the scathing, autobiographical “Piss Factory”, later adapted to song for her debut 7” release), the Patti Smith that is most prevalently on display here is the student of Arthur Rimbaud, the maverick 19th century French poet whom Smith idolized and mimicked all they way down to her androgynous image on Horses’ iconic Robert Mapplethorpe album cover.
The importance of Rimbaud’s influence on not only Smith’s work but that of an entire generation of musical poets that picked up on his legacy a century after his death (note that one of the seven identity-fragments in Todd Haynes’ deftly symbolic Dylan biopic I’m Not There is that of an effeminate young artist who identified himself as Rimbaud) could easily inspire a hefty text of its own, and Shaw rightfully places him in the proper context of Smith’s own composite artistic identity.
By far the most interesting, or at least eminently readable, portion of Shaw’s text for a non-Smith scholar is the chapter that deals immediately with Horses itself. Wading the murky waters of such brilliant yet admittedly opaque songs as “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)”, “Birdland” and “Land”, Shaw supplies more casual fans with a handy listening guide, helpfully bringing the record’s treasure chest of themes, allusions and inter-textual references as close to the surface as possible. Given the complex nature of these songs, however, one wishes that Shaw had dedicated a somewhat larger portion of the book to their dissection, rather than spending a somewhat disproportionate four-fifths of the text sketching in the album’s pre-history.
Armed with an amazing depth of knowledge and insight on Smith’s life from childhood to the release of her debut masterpiece, Shaw contributes what is overall yet another stellar entry in this excellent series of books; odd that it is only when dealing with Horses itself that he is anything less than generous.