Counterbalance 19: Patti Smith -‘Horses’

One of the most critically-acclaimed debuts in rock history, Patti Smith’s Horses is a whirlwind of poetry and proto-punk rock. Counterbalance takes Horses for a ride -- go Rimbaud and go Johnny go!
Patti Smith
10 November 1975

Klinger: Let me begin by making a bold proclamation, one that ties in with the last edition of Counterbalance. Patti Smith’s “Gloria” is one of the greatest side one/track ones of all time, on par with Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (both 1975 albums—coincidence?).

In just under six minutes, “Gloria” takes you on a sexy, slightly scary roller coaster ride, and in those minutes, you realize you are in the presence of a master, someone who can take the poetic pretensions of the Lizard King and do them up right. Someone with the same blend of lasciviousness and aloofness as Jagger in his prime. “Gloria” shuts down any pointless academic discussions of gender identity or the role of women in rock or the state of the music industry circa 1975, because it’s too busy whipping you around over its head. I was only seven when “Gloria” came out, so I can only imagine what my reaction to it would have been, but I suspect it would have been similar to when I saw Prince on MTV as a teenager—this is what’s next.

Mendelsohn: That is a bold proclamation, Klinger, one that I’m not inclined to argue with, especially when the opening line is, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” But if John Lennon taught us anything, it’s not to involve Jesus with rock music. I’m surprised Patti made it out of the 1970s, considering the all-around religious zealotry that marred parts of the 20th century. I’m so glad we’ve moved past all of that.

But before you go jumping over gender issues, there is one semi-rhetorical question I want to ask. If Patti had been a Patrick, would we be having this conversation?

Klinger: If Patti had been a Patrick, Smith’s poetic approach would have been different, and Horses wouldn’t be the album that it is. Jim Morrison showed what happens when your more alpha-dog poetry types start toiling in the rock fields—you get shamanistic calls to Dionysian bacchanalia (a.k.a. getting laid). It’s Smith’s less-macho sensibilities that power this album.

Mendelsohn: Again, no argument here. I know this album racked up the accolades, but what I’m wondering, despite her undeniable mastery of rock ‘n roll, was Patti Smith viewed as somewhat of an anomaly, if not a novelty because of her gender? Was it because she could beat the boys at her own game? Or did it have to do with the fact that a woman had finally taken the reins of the rock chariot? All three, perhaps? Please submit your answer in the form of a pie chart.

Also, I don’t like the comparison of Patti Smith to Jim Morrison. Mostly because Morrison is a terrible poet and lumping him in that category does a horrible disservice to poetry in general. I’ve submitted a Venn diagram to illustrate my point.


Klinger: I don’t think even the nastiest of rock nerds would use the word “novelty” to describe Smith, but I could see where they might treat her as even more of an anomaly than they treated other female rockers. I think the reason for the accolades, though, has less to do with the reasons you list than with her connection to rock traditions.

Like a lot of the proto-punk artists, Smith was romanticizing rock ‘n’ roll’s past, which wasn’t hard to do considering the hash that Emerson, Lake & Palmer were making of its present. Whatever Baudelaire she was bringing to the party, she was still going to do the Watusi to Cannibal and the Headhunters, and that was bound to attract the right kind of attention.

You know, Mendelsohn, I’m a little taken aback by your overall positivity here. I thought I was going to have to tap dance a little harder on this one. I assume that this album was to your liking?

Mendelsohn: You are correct, sir. And I’m a little taken aback at your assumption that I might find fault with this nearly perfect album. Despite any misgivings I may have voiced about previous entrants on the Big List, I can recognize an excellent piece of rock ‘n roll when it sits down on my lap. I think this record should be higher on the list.

The only reason I’m pushing the gender-issue hot button is, so we have something semi-controversial to talk about. Also, the fairer sex is woefully underrepresented on the list. If I were to make a pie chart, women would only have a tiny slice. After Patti, we don’t see another woman on the list until Joni Mitchell at number 46, Carole King at number 63, and Aretha Franklin at number 79. And if you want to count these, Fleetwood Mac, the Pixies, and Sonic Youth also made the top 100.

Klinger: You and your charts—it’s like doing a column with Ross Perot. It’s a sad fact that pop music has been, and in many ways continues to be a boys’ club. I blame the male baby boomers, who first started the movement to take rock seriously. They talked a good game, but their views on gender roles seemed to have landed somewhere around Don Henley’s groin. It’s amazing, frankly, that Patti Smith got the pass that she did.

My sincere apologies for any assumptions I may have made. In the past, though, you’ve been dismissive of albums that were on the less accessible end of the spectrum, and Horses does feature a couple of rather esoteric nine-minute readings. And Patti’s somewhat casual relationship with phonics can make for a challenging listen if you don’t have a lyric sheet right handy. What makes this album work so well for you?

Mendelsohn: The things that work so well on this album are the things that work well for every other excellent record. Sure, Patti can be a little long-winded and phonically challenged. Still, I spent several years parsing literature in academia and have gained the uncanny ability to listen without really hearing, which is helpful when tenure track professors take detours into the intricacies of Keats and Pounds. In one ear and out the other. But that doesn’t diminish my appreciation for Patti’s ability to construct an album that simultaneously looks forward and backward. Let me also give props for her flair for the theatrical and then name drop Janus just to bring things full circle.

Being able to embrace the past while at the same time breaking new ground has been the hallmark of great artists, and if you look at records that I’m drawn to on this list, you’ll see that pattern. I like a dose of old with the new and I think it helps most listeners make a connection with the music by showing them where it came from, and ultimately, where it can go.

Klinger: I’ve been doing some poking around on the Googler trying to gain some perspective here, and I can’t help noticing that there are almost no negative reviews of this album. I mean anywhere. From those Boy Howdy-swilling yahoos at Creem to the ever-erudite Bob Christgau to the kids at Pitchfork, this album is almost universally beloved. Even the one-star trolls at seem to be just kidding around. And yet this seems to be the ultimate insider’s album. Rock nerds like us are drawn to it, while everyone else is just not bothering.

Of course, Patti’s vocals are going to be an acquired taste, and the music is at times a jarring mix of ’60s Nuggetry (thank you Lenny Kaye) and free-form avant-garde. There was also just enough of a sheen on the album (thank you Clive Davis, and I guess producer John Cale) to make arena-rock chucklehead Sammy Hagar think that covering “Free Money” was a good idea. Is this a possible dividing line between the Rock Geek and the Productive Member of Society?

Mendelsohn: Interesting. Patti Smith as a rock geek litmus test? I like where this is going. Let’s plot this one out.

I think Horses is one of those albums that doesn’t reveal all of its secrets at first blush. You have to beat your way through some tall hedges before it opens up to show you some amazing vistas. Next thing you know, you’re standing in the shower, singing “Redondo Beach”. Or at least your best approximation of it.

Klinger: Or my best approximation of “Gloria”, which I’m often tempted to sing throughout the day, and which just about got me kicked out of bible study last week. But that may also have been related to the accompanying interpretive dance—Patti Smith has inspired me to mix the high art with the low and throw in a soupcon of blasphemy as well. I owe her one.

This article originally published on 4 February 2011.