The high priestess of proto-punk poetry stares out from the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait on Horses, her 1975 landmark debut. She glances back at the onlooker impassively, unbound by the gaze. A raven -haired gamine thug in shirt & tie, jacket tossed over her shoulder like a ragamuffin Sinatra, with Dylan’s ‘cowboy mouth’: a cocksure outlaw ready to take on the world. It’s as striking a sleeve as any in the rock canon; a brutally austere panacea to the gaudy excesses of the decade it landed in the middle of. Two years before Jamie Reid’s Situationist minimalism brashly housed the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Smith wiped the slate clean.
Dressed as a hit-man, armed with a stolen copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations in her pocket, scurrying through the ‘excremental’ NYC of Mean Streets/Taxi Driver; a red light open sewer where poets are free to roam. Hatching plans with accomplice/fellow ‘aesthetic thief’ Mapplethorpe in rooms at the Chelsea Hotel. A place where amid the urban debris of her band’s feral garage punk, Richard Sohl’s piano comes pirouetting out like a ballerina through a junkyard. Where, Genetesque, beauty blossoms in the most savage crevices of the city. Not for her the lurid camp of Pop Art, Smith’s work swirls with the masculinist vigour of Abstract Expressionists de Kooning & Pollock.
South Jersey-born Smith had been a warehouse worker, teacher college dropout and rock journo. The former job inspired one side of her 1974 debut single, Piss Factory, a beatnik rap that chronicled Smith’s travails in menial labour but concluded as a valiant declaration of an artist’s autonomy/ambition. The flipside was Hey Joe, the 60’s staple hijacked by Patti as Patty Hearst and presaged by a jaw-dropping address to the kidnapped scion. An autodidact, Smith’s DIY ethos signposted a seismic shift: this roughly hewn single embodied the independent spirit deployed across the Atlantic by The Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch. But Smith got there two years earlier, practically a lifetime in those heady days.
As the titans of 60’s rock bloated or waned, a new scene was birthed at NY venues like CBGBs & Velvet Underground/New York Dolls hangout, Max’s Kansas’ City. The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidods, Talking Heads were a motley crew, veering from art-damaged nerds to comic book American cool. All of them aimed their music at street level.
‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,’ is the line that opens In Excelsis Deo/Gloria, her incendiary reimagining of the Van Morrison/Them classic; part Sapphic battle cry, part brazen adoption of the male rocker perspective. As curtain-raising lyrical throw-downs go, it’s never been surpassed for sheer audacity. Misconstrued as secular disdain (Smith is way too seduced by rituals, divine or otherwise to wholly reject them), it’s actually a bold statement of self-reliance. Enter the female rock star as pugilist poet, enthralled by the largely male lineage that trailed before her but ready to absorb it, to seize the reins.
Horses retains the primal ferocity of her initial two-tracker; the shamanic poet conducting the wild electricity of a band, channelling the ghosts of rock n’ roll past. She summons the two Morrisons, Jim and Van, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Lou Reed but stretches further back to the original iconic iconoclasts, French symbolist poets, Baudelaire & Rimbaud. Her greasepaint gang keep things energized; a neat distillation of Dylan’s ‘thin wild mercury’ sound, the Velvets,MC5,Stooges,The Who & assorted 60’s punk impudence. Sidekick/guitarist Lenny Kaye was a connoisseur of the latter, being the curator of legendary 1972 compilation, Nuggets.
Horses bristles with leather jacketed bravado but aches with the Achilles Heel of desire. Her delivery flits from hawkish Reed/Dylan declamations to Laura Nyro mournful yearning. Two songs, Free Money & Break It Up (featuring Television’s Tom Verlaine on tremulous guitar) sound like open heart surgery on FM radio. Highway-ready rock classicism, with jolts of hard reality in its dreamscape sweep. The most pared-down music, like the svelte Kimberly, becomes airborne; taking flight on the wings of Smith’s fervid poetics. No-nonsense rock n’ roll but woven into an incantation by the magus-like Smith.
As much under the tutelage of poets as she was rock, Smith may have influenced punk but her Whitmanic inclusiveness meant that she would never delineate clear lines between old/new wave. It contains multitudes; three-chord thrash, chugging vintage rock, eviscerating jazz, pearlescent piano balladry. Redondo Beach even manages a blanched-out reggae. Like Television’s Marquee Moon, Horses is full of extended workouts. Birdland takes the relationship between Wilhelm & Peter Reich as its source of inspiration (so would Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting). As with The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, she invokes Coltrane, moving beyond the parameters of rock as she garbles for deliverance. This is a free-form fissure where jazz, blues and country seep into its sparse, prairie-setting, Birdland moulds new forms with scant resources. It seems, like so much visionary pre-76 music, to anticipate post-punk more than the parochial limitations of so much of the main event.
The album seems to be in flux; a ceaseless ever-shifting quest for expression. Again like heroes Dylan & Reed, her limited technique becomes virtue, spurring her on to create, to surmount obstacles.
In life, in art, barriers must be broken down. The album’s cornerstone, Land begins with a spoken-word passage; a high schoolboy taking a beating in the confines of a corridor. ‘The boy looked at Johnny’ she intones, sounding as menacing as anyone ever did on a record and inspiring everyone from Tony Parsons to The Libertines. Tension builds and explodes into a reading of Land Of A Thousand Dances and an invocation of her beloved Rimbaud; hardship transmogrified into ecstasy via the thrill of rock and the power of the poet. ‘Oh that I could will a radio here. James Brown singing,’ she moaned on Piss Factory; a divine respite from the toil and the bozos who would ‘knee her in the john’ for carrying poetry books.
Production duties were carried out by classically trained former VU member, John Cale at Hendrix HQ Electric Lady Studios. Sometimes bone dry and hermetic, sometimes bathed in etheric reverb, Horses balances live urgency with clinical studio separation. Often it sounds like a traditional band ‘split open’, rendered elemental. As Land reaches its closing moments of dispersal, fretwork rattles through the mix; ‘the ghost of electricity howling in the bones’ of a dying man. It is as if the terrible sublimity of Melville’s whiteness, echoed on the sleeve, bleeds into the music.
Smith’s work is suffused with terror, emblematic of the decade where the counterculture’s dreams turned nightmare, where insurrectionary attacks became commonplace .But Horses also smoulders with renegade romance. Often these songs sound like billet-doux exchanged between the Baader Meinhof members. All of it bears the rarefied sensuality of a poet’s unwavering devotion to, & immersion in all art.
Not that Smith is high brow. Au contraire, this was a lady who loved dancing with her siblings to The Shirelles, who recently selected Madonna’s Into The Groove as one of her favourites for the same reason. Her lovely, wonky renditions of Debbie Boone’s You Light Up My Life, Annie’s Tomorrow & Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow contain no vestige of irony. Just pure feeling.
She continued to defy easy classification. Sophomore effort, 1976’s Radio Ethiopia is oft-overlooked but contains at least one stone-cold classic, Pissing In A River, another bruised, flaming torch song. After a stage accident, she returned with the air-punching AOR Easter in 1978. It spawned a huge hit with Because The Night, a co-write with fellow magic rat of Jungleland, Bruce Springsteen. The collaboration rubbed off on The Boss. The same year’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town is Smith-informed; poetic, visceral, unvarnished. Listen to Candy’s Room’s recreation of Land’s dynamics.1979’s Wave was followed by a Detroit domestic sabbatical, re-emerging only for 1988’s Dream Of Life. Since the 1994 death of her husband, the MC5 drummer, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith she has resumed to consistent activity. Horses concludes with Elegie, a spectral lament to Hendrix as haunted as Van Morrison’s Slim Slow Slider. She’s still celebrating the life of deceased artists while refusing to romanticize their excesses. New release Banga features This Is The Girl, a eulogy to the late Amy Winehouse.
Horses proved talismanic to both women and men in rock. Needless to say, she kicked down a door Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, Penetration’s Pauline Murray & X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene walked through. 90’s artists as disparate as Courtney Love and PJ Harvey owed a debt to her. But so did Stephen Patrick Morrissey. His literary lyrical viewpoint and The Smith’s utilitarian namesake both seem inspired by Patti, the original Smith, the original grafting pop poet. Similarly, that other skinny outsider, REM’s Michael Stipe would be emboldened by Horses’ ‘sea of possibility’. Not just a record then, a call to arms to all those who stand ‘outside of society’ in service to the artist’s romantic will. And the product of a pre-Giuliani, pre-Carrie Bradshaw, freewheeling New York that nurtured them.