Much has been written of punk rock in every publication, both print and online (this site included). It’s a counterculture so ingrained in todays mainstream culture that its easy to forget the genre was at one time subversive, or at least aimed to be. It was a reaction to disco, A/C, and mainstream rock that had veered away from its rebellious roots.
Even among this bubbling scene of misfits, the artists veered in different directions. Some churned out rapid tracks that seemed to wrap up before they even started. Others bent genres a bit in an effort to create something new. Genres have blurry beginnings and endings, so punk is more than the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, though they are arguably the most recognizable faces of the movement. And to this I bring you Patti Smith, someone whose iconic album cover for her 1975 debut Horses is probably more famous than her music.
Nearly 30 years after its release, Horses still sounds misplaced among rock and punk. In this album without a home, Land, a nine-minute epic with three distinct movements, somehow sticks out as just plain odd. It tells the story of Johnny, a boy who is physically attacked and possibly raped, and the subsequent Surrealist journey he experiences. Smith based Johnny on the character Johnny in William Burroughs The Wild Boys.
The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway,
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway
The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically
Next we get a garage band cover of Chris Kenners Land of a Thousand Dances, a song made most famous by Wilson Pickett as an R&B tune a decade earlier. Winding her own lyrics through the song, she name checks 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud and alludes to cocaine usage while rattling off Kenners list of dances. Its pure, aural Dali. Out of a black mare comes stairs that lead to a sea and Johnny has a knife to his own throat, which bleeds vocal cords. Thats the pithiest summary I can give of the final part of the song, and still it doesnt touch upon the free flowing words that walk a fine line between poetry and lyrics and nonsense.
Her reputation as punks poet laureate is both sincere and tongue in cheek, I presume. The former is attributed to the fact that she helped usher in the idea of smart rock, if you can classify other rock as thoughtless. Of her take on recording Gloria, Smith writes in her book of lyrics and writings:
Gloria gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and disclaim our musical and spiritual heritage. It personifies for me, within its adolescent conceit, what I hold sacred as an artist. The right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.
She obviously infuses a purpose into her work that goes beyond rejecting the music of her contemporaries as her quasi-sample of Land of a Thousand Dances in Land illustrates. Yet, punk isnt a genre that wants to be elevated to something more than it is. After all, Tin Pan Alley was an escape from the grim economic times of its day, but you wouldnt have wanted someone to announce mid-song that society is a glimmering cesspool swirling down the drain. (Oddly enough, punk wouldve been more comfortable with that claim set to frantic guitar, of course.)
Land is everything punk is and isnt. It was unlike the songs you heard on the radio and made by a few rockers with no fancy gadgetry. Yet it was nearly a third of the running time of the Ramones debut album and didnt talk about 1970s cultureit wove together bits of cross-generational culture.
Thirty-three years later the song seems absurdly out of place in punk and even in todays music scene. It was an obvious peer to the work of the Velvet Underground and Television but it wasnt quite like them. Listening to todays critical darlings, I cant help but think Smith had a huge influence, even if Im not sure these artists actually heard her. (After all, her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was controversial, as several critics noted shes loved by a vocal minority but hated by or unknown to an overwhelming majority.)
Yet, the first time I listened to Sufjan Stevens, he sounded like a songwriter also trying to squeeze expansive concepts into poetry and narrative under the guise of songwriting. And oddly enough, unraveling the many layers of M.I.A.s Kala, I immediately thought of Land in the way a sample becomes part of her songs but its both recontextualized and integrated so that its indistinguishable from the other elements. I dont presume to say Smith directly influenced these particular artists because I haven’t seen them mention her in interviews, but “Land” seems to be a forerunner to a lot of today’s noteworthy music.
“Horses” (abridged version)