Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Horses (1975)

As exalted as it is earthbound, and on so many levels, Patti Smith's great debut along with a performance I witnessed of her and her remarkable band early in 1976 ushered me into a whole new world of rock 'n' roll at a moment in my life when I needed it badly. This was a very important album for me. I want to point out just three examples of its profound dichotomies, which run through practically every little thing about it. First, the cover shot by her friend Robert Mapplethorpe is a simple enough black and white shot of the New Jersey native posed against a wall with a jacket slung over her shoulder, looking for all the world like some yobby thug stepping from the shadows of one London subculture of bleak horizons or another. Look more closely, however, and you will see that Mapplethorpe carefully set up the shot to create a play of light and shadow just behind her that gives her angel wings. On to the title, a simple common noun evocative of western movies and literature, young girls, agriculture, jousting, rodeos, and other homely matters mostly mundane in their times and places. Yet the horse, of course, is also a potent and deeply embedded symbol that cuts across European, Native American, Arabian, and Eastern cultures. Zimbio tells me that the horse symbolizes "success, freedom, travel, strength, power, nobility, wisdom and loyalty. It is also a symbol of life and death, grace and beauty." Smith harks to most of that one way or another in her remarkable 9:26 "Land" suite here, additionally working in an inscrutable scenario of teen rape, a cover of Cannibal & the Headhunters' 1965 hit "Land of 1,000 Dances" (covered also by Wilson Pickett, in 1966), and a cameo from the sea (which, remember, composes not just 71% of the earth's surface but 71% of our body's composition as well), resorting as needed to simply chanting, "Horses ... horses ... horses," to bring the thing up to full speed. Last, in this quickie survey of mine, the album opens with a cover of the old mid-'60s garage-rock chestnut, "Gloria." But this is not just any old cover of the song that launched one million teen dance parties, as Smith's opening figure—which does not appear in the Van Morrison original—makes abundantly clear: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." This G-L-O-R-I-A has much less to do with somebody in a beehive hairdo snapping gum and a lot more to do with "in excelsis Deo" and the affairs of a church. I'm still not sure which church that is, given the opening remarks, but there was a time when I was convinced it was the one true church, and I desperately wanted to join.

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