Fake it till you make it. That could be one way of looking at it. “If you will it, it is no dream” (The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak re-quoting Theodore Herzl) could possibly be a better route of looking at what we want with our lives. Patti Smith was raised in New Jersey but was determined to leave it, seduced by the culture and possibilities of New York City. Without any formal training or direction, the Bohemian Smith had one goal: to “be somebody. To be a big star.” To be an artist. There are countless others who probably shared this same dream and failed, but Smith’s is an inspiring story.
Any fan of punk and mainstream music will eventually converge on Smith. Here’s my convoluted path: In the mid aughts, (I think that’s what they call the 2004-2007 era. I dunno. Weird term.) I was listening to a lot of Minnesota (where Smith now resides) punk rock, The Replacements, Bob Mould’s Hüsker Du and Sugar, Cows, Arcwelder etc. So I started going a little further back in time to the 70’s New York CBGB punk scene: Television, Richard Hell, New York Dolls…and Smith. My high school years were flooded with Springsteen so this led me initially to Patti Smith’s iconic Springsteen cover “Because the Night,” so I was familiar with her name but not her body of work. I picked up Horses and Radio Ethiopia on the cheap and dug in. Horses is Smith’s debut album. Inhabitant of the infamous Chelsea Hotel with roommate, part time lover and “Soul Twin” photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who shot the album cover), Smith had set out to become a poet, while also dabbling in performance art and theater. Throwing everything against the wall until something stuck. Via CBGB she would meet guitarist Lenny Kaye and Velvet Underground’s John Cale (album’s producer) and put her spoken word poetry/performance art out as a studio album.
Horses sets the hook immediately with a pounding, provocative cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” mixed lyrically with Smith’s poetry. Pretty innovative. “Redondo Beach” is a song Smith wrote on an escape from a fight with her sister. You can start to notice that Smith has no real vocal training but her sheer force has the ability to weave an alluring narrative over a great backing band. “Birdland,” an ode to an old jazz club and her muse Rimbaud, can be a skip but is interesting because you can almost feel some semblance of the unhatched Rap genre over the piano. “Free Money” is my favorite track on the album and would feel comfortably at home on many Fleetwood Mac albums. A great song detailing her growing up in New Jersey. “Break It Up” was written with Television’s Tom Verlaine. Allegedly, Smith wrote this song in response a dream she had about The Door’s Jim Morrison. I think she gets a little into the histrionics on it, but it’s a fun track. “Land” has Smith using the same trick she used on “Gloria” but this time using Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.” It’s a febrile, swirling… 9 minute punk rock song ironically detailing the birth of rock and roll. There’s also the fun pun and nod to Rimbaud on “La Mer/De.” Mer is French for Sea and Merde means “Shit” for the non francophiles. The album ends with the dour “elegie” written about the passing of Jimi Hendrix.
Precision over accuracy. Smith had a target in mind but didn’t push her chips in one idea. I love that because too often we’re told or taught to focus on one goal and pursue only it. But what are we left with if we don’t achieve it? Smith was very fortunate to know what she wanted at such a young age. It allowed her to create minimum viable products around her target and double down on what worked. Music. Maybe that’s a little too business minded but I think Smith very well could be more capitalist than artist.
Favorite Tracks: “Gloria” “Free Money” “Land: Horses/ Land of a Thousand Dances/ La Mer(de)”
Pressing: Arista. AL 4066. Original P.R.C. Pressing. 1975