Graded on a Curve:
Patti Smith, Horses

This week we’re taking a look at a few select reissues slated for Record Store Day 2012. —Ed.

It might not be a tantalizingly obscure or doggedly underrated record, but it’s great to see Patti Smith’s debut LP Horses getting a fresh vinyl reissue for Record Store Day. If she’s not a “lost” artist or even one needing a boost in retroactive esteem, there’s always room for additional assessment. For when the supreme deity of musical affairs gave us this post-Beat proto-punk rocker-poet, well they simply broke the mold.

For those born too late, it’s a reliably interesting experience to hear the works of groundbreaking artists. Being all of four years old when Patti Smith’s Horses was released is a prime example. Initially, I had to contend with hearing and holding dear a whole gaggle of stuff that was obviously influenced by Smith’s massive precedent. For just a few like-gendered examples, I’d already been knocked sideways by Poly Styrene, Exene Cervenka, and Kim Gordon, so when I finally spent some of my hard-earned part-time hash-slingin’ cash on a beat up copy of Horses circa 11th grade, I was very much impressed, but the chaotic disorder of time caused my introduction to lack the rarefied status of epiphany.

And it was surely similar for others from my age group. But her Dream of Life album was making some comeback waves around this time, with her single “People Have the Power” getting a good bit of MTV play and even some commercial radio airtime. That tune pairs up well with Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd” from his ’89 New York album (also something of a creative comeback), with both songs making the case for younger listeners that there was far more to Smith’s career and Reed’s solo work than her “Because the Night” and his “Walk on the Wild Side.”

This may all seem like elementary learning, but during the ‘80s Reed’s post-Velvet Underground career was not that highly regarded, some even calling him a creative washout. And while the period wasn’t unkind to Patti, the perception of her output up to that point, at least for many youthful upstarts, was that she was a surly early ‘70s proto-punker easily lumped in with the likes of Jonathan Richman and New York Dolls, except that Smith actually managed to negotiate a fleeting relationship with the mainstream.

And her geographical circumstances sorta compounded the issue, for in the late-‘80s the original NYC punk scene was, with the exception of The Ramones and to a lesser extent Richard Hell, looked upon with a degree of skepticism by youngsters bred on subsequent examples of the style; Blondie was too pop-savvy, Television was a bunch of jammers, Heartbreakers smacked of the failure of junkiedom, Talking Heads was too New Wave, and nobody could initially figure out exactly what Suicide was up to.

The reality is that while punk rock is correctly identified as a movement centered on youth, the New York incarnation of the form was conceived almost entirely by adults, and it’s not that these deservedly renowned individuals didn’t want to grow up; expectations (and rents) were notoriously low in the weird and seedy boroughs of pre-gentrification New York City, and carving out an existence (if not necessarily a living) in a rock band was just one of many options. It just took a little bit of accumulated life experience for kids ten years hence to really get that Sonic Youth’s twin guitar attack was unimaginable without Television, that Nikki Sudden’s work in the Jacobites was deeply touched by the example of Johnny Thunders, and that a small army of industrial and experimental bands were directly linked to the work of Suicide. And if Patti’s defiant individualism has resulted in a lack of boldfaced stylistic descendants, the very nature of her groundbreaking if non-didactic feminism locates her as a godmother to over thirty years of righteous rock women.

While spending ample time with Horses, I managed to not only hear both “Hey Joe” and ”Piss Factory” from her killer debut single, but also the splendid live throttling of “My Generation.” Radio Ethiopia came not long after this, and all the components of Smith’s early work were in place. If these records didn’t provide an epiphanic experience, they did slowly reveal some very powerful truths, the foremost being that with the obvious exception of Bob Dylan, Smith had conjured up the most successful hybrid vernacular of music and serious literary aspiration to ever make it onto record (Leonard Cohen fans, please don’t take this personally, for he ranks third).

And while Dylan certainly influenced Smith, it’s still striking just how much of her formative work lacked clear-cut predecessors, though a few prior models did peak through, notably Lou Reed, who studied under poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University and dedicated “European Son” from the debut VU album to his former professor. And in a sense early punker Smith can also be considered the tail end of a New York-centric movement that combined music and disheveled poetics, with The Fugs and Allen Ginsberg being prime examples.

But Patti Smith deeply loved rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what set her apart as a literary musician both then and now. Beginning with Horses’ opener “Gloria” she and her coconspirators, the foremost being Lenny Kaye, slammed the essence of Nuggets up against the formidable spirit of Arthur Rimbaud and neither side loses, so everybody goes home a winner. And if Smith’s influences as a poet span a wide range of bohemian experience, she lacks any trace of the overblown or the obnoxious.

To elaborate, two nagging problems with rock music that aspires to a poetic sensibility are a lack of restraint and unchecked idolatry. For one example, picture a dude reciting some “first thought best thought” scribblings while accompanied by music that strives for inspired spontaneity only to flounder in a directionless mess. But “hey man, we’re in the tradition of Kerouac.” Actually, you’re more like that cartoon beatnik from The Flintstones. And guys who trip out on peyote and swill whisky straight from the bottle as they scrawl their insights onto a crumpled grocery bag in the desert are just as bad; while Jim Morrison was a lot of things, a role-model ain’t one of them. He died at 27, and if an occasionally great rock front man, his attempts at poetry aren’t exactly staples in university lit courses.

Meanwhile Patti Smith has received an honorary degree from Pratt Institute, a college that she couldn’t afford to attend. Instead she toiled in a factory, and like so many great proletarian artists, this mind-numbing work taught her discipline. If “Birdland” and “Land” (aka the title track) from Horses clock in at over nine minutes each, they are both, like Patti herself, exceedingly trim, with nary an ounce of excess fat or folly. And she mingled these more expansive numbers with buoyant bits of pop brilliance like “Redondo Beach” and “Kimberly.”

Debut records very rarely arrive with this much self assurance. And not to wax too autobiographical, but if the value of Smith’s work didn’t speak directly to my own teenaged experience, as I grew older and worked a succession of crappy jobs while seeking solace in the regenerative properties of music, books and art, her work communicated with me in ways I simply didn’t expect. She was there like a wise older friend, not giving advice but just setting a beautiful example.

Sometimes the succinct merely states the obvious. For instance, writing that Patti Smith’s Horses is among the small handful of debut masterpieces ever committed to magnetic tape feels like the borrowed accolades quoted in record advertisements or promo blurbs. But the better angels of elaboration be damned, sometimes the concise is the best avenue of persuasion. In the case of this brilliant document having thus far eluded you, I will offer one suggestion in response; please get thee to a music shack and remedy this circumstance post haste. You won’t be sorry.

Graded on a Curve: A+

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