Memory falls like cream in my bones
Moving on my own
How is it we come to be animated in this world? How are we stirred into action, how are we placed here, inert, given a little shove in the solar plexus by the finger of God, who whispers in our ears go forth and do things? How do we know when to shout and when to whisper? How do we know how to wear our hair and what color to paint the walls around us? How do we know who to be?
I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like to come to life fully formed, fully present without any sense of a past or a process that led you to this moment. What it would be like to have every fiber of your being created by the singularity of now—not before, not then. To be complete and comfortable with whatever is facing you, because whatever is facing you right in that moment is you. Isn’t that terrifying.
But we all have a past, a history we lean on heavily in our own self-creation. We lean on stories, and on experiences—both the beautiful and the painful—allowing them to guide us into becoming who we are. The past is behind us, sure, but it is a giant pile of rubble, and depending on whether we were already heading up or down the hill, it likewise elevates us or buries us. We are rubble—bricks and pebbles and stones of experience calcifying and hardening, the mortar of time filling the cracks in between to create a human being. Sedimentary rocks made up of everything we love and hate, little facts we learned, summer nights and winter mornings uniquely and haphazardly combined to create something else entirely. But some—the best, it seems—hide this process so well that you can’t possibly imagine that they came from any kind of past at all.
It's almost impossible to remember that Horses was Patti Smith’s debut album. This is because it feels as if Patti came into the world fully formed, entirely of her moment. Listening to it now, it’s a challenge to hear anything other than that very moment of existence, even though it is, at its heart, an album of influence and confluence—a beautiful pile of rubble on which Patti herself is lifted, her gaze penetrating, confident.
Each track of Horses is a callback to the things that allowed her to emerge in that moment as Patti Smith: Rimbaud, Birdland, Jimi’s long Fender whine, the Boney Maronie, Joan of Arc. There are songs that draw biographically from her own youth—“Free Money,” “Kimberly,” and “Redondo Beach”—aching to pull the memories out of the past (these, too, built her) and into a vibrating, pulsating present. The opening track is a blend of her early poem “Oath” and Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which, as Patti writes in the footnotes of her Collected Lyrics, “gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and disclaim our musical and spiritual heritage.” (Patti’s covers always belong in that special category of songs that have new life breathed into them through her voice. She lends them all a new sense of contemporary urgency using modern-day “heroes”—“Hey Joe” with the titular Joe reimagined as a gun-toting renegade heiress Patty Hearst, or “So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star” in which “you” is Sid Vicious being driven over the edge—and trying to take her brother Todd down with him in a brutal attack—by the rock-and-roll lifestyle.)
Patti’s inclination to draw from her own past was as apparent when the album was released as it is now. I wanted to discover what Patti Smith sounded like to the world before she was Patti Smith, and so I went back as far as I could, to John Rockwell’s review of Horses in the February 12, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone. “Smith is a genuine original, as original an original as they come,” Rockwell notes, before questioning whether rock audiences still might be inclined to dismiss her for her callbacks to the past without understanding that these “antecedents” help “place her newness [...] in its proper context.”
“Horses,” Rockwell concludes, “is a great record not only because Patti Smith stands alone, but because her uniqueness is lent resonance by her past.”
Patti Smith was formed in religion, in poetry. She came to the world wrapped in words, breathing through prayer and poems, then coming to realize the power of performing those words out loud. In More Songwriters on Songwriting, Patti tells interviewer Paul Zollo that “Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.”
Patti Smith’s poetry has always had the drive of performance, the balance of loud urgency and the prayer-like whisper of her voice. In her most primordial state, Patti is both a scream and a whisper. I’ve always been terrified and awe-stricken by this dynamic: her ability not just to put words around an emotion, but to SHOUT, to claw her words into the world, and in the next breath to pray so quietly the words are returned straight to the ear of God. If you listen to her early spoken word performances, you can hear the same rhythms, the same breathless tumbling of ideas like water from a fountain. She spits back as much aggression as life spits at her, and then sings a line so soft that the leaves barely quiver when it sounds.
What her musical collaborators did on Horses was build her a stage to elevate this performance. Suddenly there’s Lenny Kaye’s guitar or Richard Sohl’s piano there beneath her feet; suddenly there are Tom Verlaine’s arpeggios swinging in on a rope from the wings, this beautiful wall of music, the rhythms of Ivan Král and Jay Dee Daugherty driving her on, urging her forward. A musical manifestation of past and experience, of the people behind her and around her that keep her going. Oh go Patti go.
The only time I ever saw Patti Smith perform I couldn’t even see her. She was tucked away inside Castle Clinton in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, the crowd inside too large to hold anyone else, but no matter: the wind carried her voice over walls meant to hold out shrapnel of enemies. (Walls can’t stop voices.) She called out to the people beyond the walls—can you hear me—and we called back—we can hear you.
I’ve always felt similarly isolated from her music—walled off, standing there in awe just outside, as if I wasn’t quite yet ready to enter. Whether it was a consequence of age or exposure, I experienced a deep intimacy with the music of nearly all of those Patti influenced (R.E.M., PJ Harvey, Hole) before I ever listened closely to any of her albums. And even once I did, I felt I could hear her, and her immediacy, but still it felt so far away from me. Her performance was so urgent, her energy vibrating, her thoughts so self-possessed and confident—how otherworldly (waiting for you, please take me up, don’t leave me here) it felt from my own existence. God’s finger clearly hadn’t pushed me as hard as he’d pushed Patti.
I would like to pretend I never existed before the moment when I first heard the urgency of these words, that muscular cavalry approaching:
horses horses horses horses
coming in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames
He saw horses horses horses
horses horses horses horses horses
But really it took me years to come even close to appreciating her deeply, and I was already long in the process of existing. We’re all in the process of existing, of debuting—even as we’re hearing something that changes us so fundamentally that the ground shifts beneath our feet with the approach of the herd.
Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. This—this is a poem. This is the self-involved pursuit of trying to discover something of myself in an album given forth unto the world when I was just a sack of cells walled off in my mother’s womb. This is me trying to relate my experience of this album and Patti’s influence in words that can only dare to measure up to hers, someone so self-possessed she can shout to the world what she knows, and me trying, through a nearly impenetrable wall of self-doubt, to tell the world what I know. Writing—songwriting, essay writing—is taking that step into the world, allowing our voices to be lifted over the wall, acknowledging that we can never be fully formed. That our influences will continue to shape us, that those closest to us will help build our stage. We are lent resonance by our past. We are always in the process of becoming. We are working through childhood memories, through our feelings for a handsome poet, through our rage at the state of the world and friends taken too early from us, through our fear of what that means for the future. We are in the process of amassing a pile of rubble, burying, elevating. There is no land but the land. We are in the process of being. We are the moment.
Isn’t it terrifying?