The Journey of a Great Rock Poet Begins
Patti Smith once described her artistic enterprise as "three-chord rock merged with the power of the word." She didn't mean just any old words. From the very first line of this endlessly praised debut—"Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"—Smith uses incendiary poetry as her guitar substitute, her rage-maker. She howls. She brays. She hurls language in sprays of outrage, mocking piety one minute and making solemn prayerful incantations the next. A romantic with deep appreciation for life's beauty, Smith is also a rebel in the great rock tradition, and an artist as bent on cultural confrontation as the Beat poets were. This confluence of perspectives—worlds not so peacefully coexisting—is at the heart of her debut album, Horses.
Horses is an unusual beast, a series of manifestos and vignettes with wild torrents of words flung against the music at odd angles. Tilting headfirst at complacency, Smith spins several images at once, while riding three chords as far away from party-time escapism as anyone's ever gone. She's so good at reanimating rock that when she seizes an old war-horse—the Wilson Pickett hit "Land of a Thousand Dances"— as part of her triptych "Land," it comes out all disfigured, with an almost nuclear glow.
Smith grew up in rural New Jersey and, after dropping out of college and working factory jobs, fled to Manhattan in 1967. She became romantically linked with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who encouraged her to perform and later bankrolled her early recording sessions. In 1975, Smith headlined a two-month residency at CBGB; she was discovered there by Clive Davis and signed to Arista Records.
This album, produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale, was released in December 1975, and immediately hailed by critics as a major work. It established Smith as a galvanizing force, if not the most important woman in rock. The rare punk neoclassicist, she acknowledged the titans of classic rock (notably Bob Dylan and Van Morrison) while distancing herself from rock cliché. Her subsequent works, notably the big-beat-bold Easter and the poignant grief cycle Gone Again, bolster that initial impression—even if, ironically, her legacy now extends to the fiercely independent riot grrls who were direct descendents and the even poppier Avril Lavignes of the world, who came later.
Released: 1975, Arista
Key Tracks: "Gloria," "Land," "Elegie," "Free Money"
Catalog Choice: Easter; Gone Again
Next Stop: PJ Harvey: Rid of Me
After That: Ani DiFranco: Out of Range
Book Pages: 719–720