Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 11: Patti Smith, "Horses"

Artist: Patti Smith
Album: Horses
Year: 1975
Label: Arista

When it comes to the most brilliant, recognizable opening lines, one stands far above all others in the entire history of recorded music. The lines "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine..." belong to punk rock's poet-laureate, the incomparable, the often imitated, never duplicated, the legendary Patti Smith. Smith still stands today as an icon for female empowerment, and has earned the title or "rock legend." This haunting, blunt line opens her debut, which is largely regarded as one of the most influential records ever, 1975's Horses.

Everything about Horses is shocking and revolutionary in a myriad of ways. The opening line stated above begins a ruckus, yet amazing cover of Van Morrison's classic, "Gloria." The gender politics raised by Smith singing the song with its original subtext ruffled more than a few feathers upon its release. Smith's appearance on the cover (the photo was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe) of the record furthered this controversy of sexuality due to her male attire, as well as the faint mustache that can be seen. The fact that legendary producer and musician John Cale (Velvet Underground) produced Horses not only gave it "street cred" upon its release, but his ability to let Smith make the record how SHE wanted to can clearly be heard; something that is lacking on her later records. This is most obvious in the exceptionally loose feel to the music, which while the perfect platform for Smith's vocals, was no longer "in style" at the time, and again, Smith's later records are far more structured.

The music of Patti Smith has been lead for forty years by the simple, yet amazing guitar work of Lenny Kaye. The clever simplicity and anarchically-spirited mood of Kaye's guitar playing perfectly mirrors the approach that Smith takes to the vocals throughout Horses. Crunching chords and beautiful solos weave in and out under Patti's superb vocal delivery. Recorded in the legendary Electric Lady Studios, if you listen closely, you can hear guest vocals from both Tom Verlaine of Television, as well as Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. Keyboardist, Richard Sohl, best known for his work with The Stooges, was also an essential part of the lineup for the recording of Horses. The rest of the band, who would become a bit of "revolving door musicians" over the decades, understand their roles in the music, and while they are rarely featured, they all hold their own and clearly understand that it is the chemistry of Smith and Kaye that give the band their soul and sound.

When it comes to female lead singers, one would be hard pressed to find any other who was more influential than Patti Smith. Her uncompromising presence both in in the studio, as well as on stage, broke down countless barriers and proved that women could rock just as hard as their male counterparts. In both style and substance, Patti Smith's vocal delivery and lyrics were heavily influenced by Beat-era poetry, but as she puts her own mark on the style, it is almost necessary to define her sound as "post-Beat." Part Dylan, part Morrison, Patti Smith is nearly unequaled when it comes to combining insightful lyrics and honest, powerful vocal delivery. The connection to Morrison is almost completely true as the lyrics found on "Land" seem to pick up where The Doors classic, "The End" left off seven years earlier. Understanding the ethos behind punk rock as well as she does the literature of the French Renaissance, Smith's lyrics go well beyond the definition of "intelligent." So brilliant are her lyrics, that in 2005, she was awarded Orde des Arts des Lettres (French government's recognition for significant contribution to the arts).

Combining smart, sharp lyrics and an uncompromising presence both in and out of the studio, Patti Smith is a rock star of mythical proportion. Forming a more formal foundation for what would become "punk rock," Patti Smith has managed to gain worldwide acclaim, whilst never being much of a commercial success. From her countless followers, to the ingenious knock-off mockery of Gilda Radner, Smith remains one of the most highly respected and influential musicians in history. Taking influence form artists as wide ranging as Coltrane, Hendrix, Iggy Pop, and Alan Ginsberg, the sound and mood that Smith and her band create are truly like nothing else. While her entire recorded catalog is worth owning, her monumental 1975 debut, Horses, is without a doubt one of the most important records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Gloria," "Birdland," and "Land."

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