I first heard Horses in the early winter of '89, probably January. Needless to say it blew my fucking mind. I don't think there has been an album since or before that so profoundly fucked with my sense of what was "possible" in music. I didn't want to fuck Patti Smith, I wanted to be her. I remember playing "Gloria" for my friends, almost proud that I had stumbled upon a piece of musical archeology. I remember the rush, the unbelievable chill I got hearing those first words on the album: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." There were a lot of songs about fucking on that album but that's not why I loved the music. Horses was fundamentally about a challenge. It challenges you to see beyond, to look outside, to break through, to delve deeper. And yes, perhaps it works best when you are 20 years old and not when you're 30. But in that way, I was lucky to have stumbled upon her genius at that age. (Smith herself was 29 when she recorded the album.)
The picture of her on the cover of Horses -- well, what's the point of even trying to describe it in words? It may be the best album cover of all time. Robert Mapplethorpe, he of the tragic end to life, captured the weird androgyny of Patti Smith that is at the heart of the best rock'n'roll. (Aside: Mapplethorpe was also the photographer for Television's Marquee Moon, another inscrutably brilliant album cover).
Instead of offering something off of Horses, today I offer the b-side of Smith's first single from June 1974, "Piss Factory," supposedly the first punk rock song ever released. She didn't include the song on Horses, but it's worth a listen for the boundaries she was already pushing before the album. When I was a TA for the "history of rock'n'roll" class at Carnegie Mellon in the spring of 2001, I played all of "Piss Factory" to my class (100+ students!) because I wanted them to know the possibilities inherent in the medium of pop music. I also handed out lyrics to her song, "Rock'n'Roll Nigger." In an interview from the spring of 1976, just after Horses was released, Smith noted:
Every time I say the word pussy at a poetry reading, some idiot broad rises and has a fit. “What’s your definition of pussy, sister?” I dunno, it’s a slang term. If I wanna say pussy, I’ll say pussy. If I wanna say nigger, I’ll say nigger. If somebody wants to call me a cracker bitch, that’s cool. It’s all part of being American. But all these tight-assed movements are fucking up our slang, and that eats it.
Patti Smith -- Piss Factory [mp3]