The punk persistence of Patti Smith 

patti-smith-horsesIt’s almost 40 years since Patti Smith released Horses – a recording she will perform live in Dublin next Monday.

As music, as image, as artefact, Horses stands apart – a repository of Smith’s punk reveries and the deconstructed rock music of her band.

The record propelled the poet-singer to stardom, of a sort – as a boho-punk queen who blew aside the machismo that saturated the first generation of rock music. The music on Horses was as direct as the singer’s stare on the front cover of the album.

The record itself is full of literary and musical influences, from Arthur Rimbaud to The Ramones, Wilhelm Reich to Them.

But you can also hear something on Horses that goes back beyond these inspirations, past the iconography, the legend and the acclaim that surrounds the album, to a younger Patti Smith.

By the time Horses was recorded, in 1975, Smith had been pursuing her muse for eight years, since leaving her New Jersey home aged 20 for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, by way of Brooklyn.

She’d waitressed, attempted to work as a book restorer, been a clerk and a salesperson, all jobs which helped her scratch out a living while writing poetry and painting.

justkidsedit1Her memoir Just Kids recounts these early, almost always drizzly New York days; and the nights spent in cold-water flats or, at the outset, sleeping in doorways or rough in Central Park. There are moments of bright light too, afternoons spent with her partner Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island, evenings in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel with Harry Smith or William Burroughs.

The commitment to writing, the mental persistence of these early days in the face of poverty and doubt and illness, lies at the heart of Horses.

Tracks like Land (which paid tribute to Rimbaud) or Gloria (a track which begins with an anti-prayer – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” – before reincarnating Van Morrison’s original) stand out on early listens of the album.

But its core is the simpler, touching Free Money, a song which gives us Patti Smith before she became the Patti Smith. There are no allusions to French symbolist poets or cries to God here.

Addressing her penniless lover Mapplethorpe, Smith instead asks: wouldn’t it be great if we won the lottery?

Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery,
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.

She never did, of course. Instead she pulled her way up page by page, pushing and persisting until she sounded a call which resonated with thousands of others like  – and unlike – her.

Drudgery, rejection and poverty turned to poetry and music – that’s what makes Patti Smith punk.


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2 thoughts on “The punk persistence of Patti Smith 

  1. Well said. Just Kids is an exceptionally honest and evocative book.

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