Joshua Lerner died for your sins.
Reading Just Kids, Patti Smith’s poignant retelling of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their magical early years in New York, provides a lot of context for her music. She wrote a song for Janis Joplin. She liked dancing to the Marvelettes. Dylan was her idol, but it was watching Jim Morrison that first got her thinking she could be a singer. The thought embarrassed her. She didn’t tell anyone for years.
The musical details help, but they alone do not explain how Smith could have made a record like Horses in 1975. That’s because Horses isn’t so much a collection of songs as it is a mixture of art, poetry and punk ethos. As devastating as those guitars are, the band is in some ways only incidental: an extension of Smith’s first performance at St. Mark’s Church in 1971, a half-sung poetry reading featuring Lenny Kaye on electric guitar. From Just Kids, one gets the sense that Smith became a rock star in just this way, haphazardly, reluctantly.
Listen to the swirling, majestic “Land:” and you can hear the evolution playing out in real time. Smith begins, whispering, “Boy was in the hallway, drinking a glass of tea.” She continues in the style of the prose poems she so admired—she was a Rimbaud fanatic and a great admirer of the Beats—until some flanged-out power chords creep up behind her vocals. You can hear her snarl as she sings of the other boy, Johnny, crashing his head against a locker before horses surround him, “horses coming in all directions… with their nose in flames.”
“Land:” continues in classic Smith fashion, morphing between free verse, driving fuzz guitar, and snippets of the 1965 R&B hit “Land of a Thousand Dances” in a nine-minute vamp, highlighting Smith’s penchant for musical and poetic improvisation. The song is the centerpiece of Horses, an album that predates the punk rock explosion of 1977, and yet features all of the genre’s signifiers. It was rough and ragged, a bare-bones package of visceral energy delivered with a stiff upper lip.
Nevertheless, Horses is not often heard spoken in the same breath as The Clash, Never Mind the Bollocks, and the dozens of other records that heralded punk’s beginnings on wax. Perhaps Smith was too much the poet to be classified alongside the reckless boys of 1977. At the center of Horses is the language that was brimming inside her in the early years of her life. The album served simply as another poetic vessel, like the phrases she scrawled on her drawings, or the chapbooks of verse she had already released to her inner circle.
Horses is poetry, French symbolism, performance art, rock and roll, spoken word. That all of these things exist simultaneously with such exultant vigor and lack of apology—this was Smith’s statement of purpose and rebellion. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” she sings. How punk is that.