Patti Smith: Horses

Patti Smith

There’s a reason some things are clichés. My choice of Patti Smith’s Horses as an irreplaceable desert island keepsake must appear such a pandering to the canon that I winced when I settled on it. Although to be honest, as much as there were other candidates to consider, I really had little option when it came right down to it. Over the accelerating years, I’ve bought this album in vinyl form, cassette, and on CD (in England, Calgary Alberta, and Vancouver respectively).

I was fourteen years old. Mid-’70s England. The skies were grey and grimy, spittle and bricks flew on the picket lines, football fans fought tribal battles on the concrete terraces, and for Little Englanders class wars raged as if oblivious to the series of underground nuclear tests posed like impossibly vast punctuation marks by both the USA and the USSR. I was decent enough at geography to figure out fairly quickly that everything I loved lay in between those two squabbling behemoths. And the only other thing I was pretty sure about was that my granddad was probably dying.

Born in Manchester, raised Catholic thanks to Irish descent, I grew up in that odd twilight zone somewhere between working and lower middle class. I was a quiet dreamy kid, unaware then of the impact a couple of early childhood events would have in later life. I loved football, music, comics, books. And my friends, in a fashion.

As far as music went, I liked some Bowie, some glam, some prog rock, some Sabbath, some Zeppelin, and was just beginning to discover Dylan. Punk, our own English punk, had already been born (with McClaren as midwife), squalling and mewling from the back room of some London fetish boutique, had we but known it. But we didn’t, not then.

So, one day I sidled into El Cid’s Records (no shit!) and was drawn to a stark black and white LP cover depicting a waif-like human of unknown gender gazing out with a mix of sadness and defiance; a disheveled coal black mane and partly shadowed alabaster skin, forming a bizarre hybrid of Mick and Keith, but more pensive. If she’d used the name Pat instead of Patti, I would have remained clueless as to her gender until I got access to an NME. El Cid (his real name was probably Norman or Arthur) was no help. He told me to “clear off if I weren’t going to buy owt”, a course of action which, considering the familiar vacuum within my ragged pockets, I decided to take (you didn’t want to piss off El Cid; he’d take our used records sometimes for cash but usually for trade, a useful service when you’re only 14 with little disposable income. Plus he probably weighed about the same as me if there were two more of me).

I finally got access to a music rag and found some background. Patti Smith was a New Yorker, apparently, and a “Punk Poet” (what is this “punk” of which you speak?), and Horses was her first album. Better still, I found some cash, and the fat boorish bloke soon became a couple quid richer (while my own world became immeasurably richer).

Cut to: sliding the black disc out from the inner sleeve, splayed fingers underneath, thumb on the outer edge. Remember that? Sitting expectant, watching the label whirl. It’s difficult even now to describe the impact those opening lines had on me. The piano was disappointingly mellow, almost distant. Until that voice. Noo Yawk nasal yet ribcage deep and immediate, it jarred me with its mockery-by-contrast of that gaunt pale watchful figure on the sleeve. But what was that she was singing? What the hell was she intoning like some profane nun? “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”. What the …? This hit me everyplace at once: my mind, my heart, my gut, and sure, probably my gonads. Suddenly, I realized how yelp-fuckingly mad I was at God. My grandad was dying. A complicated man, a wounded man in some ways, but a good Catholic nonetheless. And my grandad, you know? Dying. At that precise moment somewhere in the year 1975 or 1976, a feral woman from across the Atlantic told me (“She whispers to me / And I take the big plunge”) that it was okay to walk away from that shit, to opt out of the story, to escape a lifetime guilt sentence based on some ill-defined resentment and fear of a punishment that might never come. To not be entirely defined by my tiny circumscribed world. To be mad if I felt mad, to be tender if I felt tender. “My sins my own, they belong to me”, in other words.

The rest of “Gloria” unspooled into a lusty arrogant snarl, a sexually predatory stomp spattered with self doubt and entitlement in equal measure, so full of life and desire and bewildered neediness that I could barely breathe in its presence (unaware then, of course, that I might have been merely switching deities). This was loud and tumultuous and even ugly (Lenny Kaye’s reedy, scratchy guitar work, the ragtag harmonies of the chorus), but never mean, never cruel. Back then, I had no idea who wrote this song. I heard the irrelevance of gender in her naked yearning. A part of me awoke that never went back to sleep.

The rest of the album went by in an ecstatic blur. Anticipating a parallel melding of punk and reggae in my own country by about a year, “Redondo Beach” washed like a lilting sweet wave of death and loss. “Free Money” was a rock ‘n’ roll dream of freedom. “Break It Up” was surreal melodrama, Tom Verlaine’s guest guitar shriek striving to claw its way to some alternate heaven devoid of cruel gods, while the theme of transcending your allotted place in life through sheer aching need (“I could feel my heart, it was melting / I tore off my clothes, I danced on my shoes / I ripped my skin open and then I broke through”) continued to entice and drag me over the dreary slate rooftops, the smokestacks and the gasworks, the dull brick tenements and the grey peeling warehouses to somewhere with … possibilities. Just as the longer semi-spoken-word song-poems “Land” and “Birdland” promised (the former’s “Up there is just a sea / Of possibilities”), with their alternately becalmed and frenzied spindrift tidal swells of music and rich pregnant tumble of real, muscular language. “Elegie” was a closing sigh, a quick sidelong glance and tearful nod at those who had fallen by the wayside while chasing those very same possibilities.

As haphazardly great as the band were — Kaye on lead guitar, Ivan Kral on rhythm guitar and bass, Richard Sohl on piano, and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums — there was always Patti: cajoling and imploring, coaxing and keening, snarling and panting, ring mistress of a mongrel prodigy circus troupe. Throughout, her voice could be warm, strident, horny, sneering, harsh, celebratory, hoarse, desperate, cool, wretched and angelic.

I never understood all the Rimbaud references back then, or the pseudo Beat poetry, or the proto-sampling of “Land of a 1000 Dances”. I might have just vaguely discerned the Hendrix love on “Elegie”, but I had no idea who Television were, or who producer John Cale was. Or even Van Morrison. Yet, in my fashion, I got it. And never let it go. There came a day when I left England for good. I doubt that would have happened without the sea of possibilities Horses opened up.

But back then, my friends sometimes teased me about this contrary, androgynous record I so earnestly championed. Yet within a year, most of them would embrace the equivalent impulse emanating from within our own shores. The Pistols, the Clash, the Vibrators, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Within a year, my granddad did indeed die, in that pivotal 1977. And I would move on eventually, too. Yet a part of me remains in awe of that awkward scrawny kid with a bad leather jacket, torn drainpipe jeans and scuffed Doc Martens, clutching his grungy copy of Horses like it was a prayerful ticket out of there. And in a strange way, it was. It allowed me a dream of life.