Graded on a Curve:
Patti Smith,

So I’m listening to Patti’s Smith’s pretty darn great 1975 debut Horses and here’s what I’m wondering: just how does Horses manage to rise so divinely above Patti’s ghastly “poetry”? Oh, I know I’m not supposed to say she’s a terrible poet. I’m not even supposed to think it. But when I hear grotesqueries (just to pull a couple of lines out of a hat; they’re everywhere) like “Your soul was a network of spittle/Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic” the poet in me rolls up in a little ball and shivers.

The answer, of course, is simple. Horses succeeds on a bunch of brilliant songs, lots of great playing, and Smith’s otherworldly energy and sheer charisma. Songs like “Gloria” (I’m going to dispense with the pretentious subtitle), “Free Money,” and “Land” prove quite conclusively that the Patti Smith Group was one helluva rock ’n’ roll band and Smith is one helluva singer. She’s by turns incantatory, seductive, and full of spit and vinegar. When she sings, “I’m not human,” I tend to believe her. She reaches peaks that most other artists spend their whole careers trying in vain to reach, and this was her first time out.

And such performances are enough to make me forgive her godawful poesy, and her pretentiousness even. Bear in mind that I’m not the only person to remark upon her, how does one say, bombastic and self-serious approach to her “Art” (I have every reason to believe that she would insist upon the capital A). Lester Bangs began a review of 1978’s Easter with the words, “I hate Patti Smith. She’s a pretentious wretch.” And he was a fan. As am I with the reservation that I find her belief in her own genius, well, a bit overbearing.

How does one prove that Patti Smith was, and may still be, an arrogant elitist and snob who is all too full of herself? Easy. One only has to quote her. Here’s her view on who should make art: “I never think that anybody should do art unless they’re a great artist. I think that people have the right to express themselves in their own homes (ed. note: how “permissive” of her–should they be sure to draw the blinds?) but I don’t think they should perpetuate it on the human race.” Patti sees fit to perpetuate her art on the human race. You do the math.

Which brings us back to Horses. Patti considered herself a great poet; her poetry blows. Yet Horses is great. Which is to say that Horses succeeds in the face of her shitty poesy, a fact that makes Horses even greater. It overcomes every obstacle Patti can throw in its way, and walks away victorious. Take “Break It Up.” It opens with a concrete observation (“Car stopped in a clearing”) and immediately descends into the kind of vapid romanticism one might expect from that odd girl in the 10th grade who was always scribbling poetry in her journal. Yet the song works–works on the strength of the commitment Smith and her bandmates put into singing the song’s title. “Birdland” works not on the strength of its lyrics but despite them. The damn song is chock full of terrible images (“And they were like compass grass coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet,” “I am helium raven and this movie is mine”) but still manages to build and build into something you would have to be daft to mock.

On songs like “Gloria” and “Free Money” Smith does the unimaginable; namely, write lyrics that actually measure up to the great music they’re set to. In both cases they work because Patti keeps it simple. She’s not playing the shaman but expressing basic human sentiments such as, well, lust and the desire for money for nothing. And her vocal performances on both songs are simply hair-raising. Smith puts such passion into her singing that I have no time to wonder whether she’s playing the part of high priestess for gullible kids, as I do on some of her other songs. I simply get a thrill when she sings, “I know they’re stolen/But I don’t feel bad/I take that money, buy you things you never had.” Both songs are cathartic in the very best meaning of the word.

As for “Land” (‘Ill again spare you the unwieldy subtitle) it has its horrible moments (“sperm coffin”?) but Smith largely manages to stay out of her way by going the homoerotic juvenile delinquent route before throwing herself into an utterly transcendental take on “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Very few songs ever reach the ecstatic heights that “Land” does, and it works in part because, despite my contempt for her self-received role as shaman for the rock ’n’ roll hordes, she sounds an incantatory note in her mesmerizing repetition of the word “horses.” On “Land” I forgive her everything–her “I put my hand inside his cranium–oh we had such a brainiac-amour” and even her “Go Rimbaud” (the last I checked, he’s a French poet, not a football team). Her incessant chatter about the sea of possibilities is apt for once, for this one breaks over your head like a great wave, and knocks you for a loop.

When people adjudge Horses one of the greatest albums of all times it’s not just her poetry that causes me to demur. There is also the question of “Redondo Beach,” “Kimberly,” and “Elegie,” none of which I think especially fine. “Redondo Beach” has a slinky feel to it and the lyrics are unobtrusive in their surprising directness; I simply think it’s overshadowed by many of the songs that surround it. “Kimberly” succeeds musically without blowing me away; it’s the lyrics that give me angina. Lines like “And I feel just like some misplaced Joan of Arc” and “And I rolled in the gas and spit out the gas” give me pause, and that goes double for the lines about your soul being a network of spittle I quoted at the beginning of this review. As for “Elegie,” it’s sparse and lovely in its way, but I never want to hear it and can’t help but wish Smith had taken the album out on a more incendiary note–the thrillingly explosive live version of “My Generation” with John Cale that was added (along with a live recording of Horses) to the 30th Anniversary reissue, for instance.

My own relationship with Smith is a complicated one. I’m put off by her poetry and repulsed by her super-elevated sense of her own importance, but drawn to her sheer, undeniable magnetism as a performer. At her best–and I don’t think she ever got any better than she got on Horses–she stands amongst the greats. She has been an inspiration to female artists in all media, and plenty of rock ’n’ rollers–many of whom aren’t women–have cited her as the reason they started making music in the first place. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that my reservations about both her talent as a poet and her character are irrelevant. Horses has its flaws but in the end it’s a triumph. It trumps everything, including its own flaws. In my more reflective moments, I feel rather the cad for even pointing them out.


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