[This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column. We will examine album lyrics for meaning, and analyze with close readings album titles, and song titles, combined with close reading of lyrics. We are reading, listening and looking toward the microcosm of the album, and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the 1970’s, 80’s and more recent decades. ]
Now for a real trip: Patti Smith’s Horses.
When she wrote her song “My Blakian Days,” performed on her 2012 book tour, Patti Smith felt out of favor and unappreciated as a major poet in league with William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, and Ezra Pound. This was before her book Just Kids– an autobiography of her life with photographer Robert Maplethorpe– became a finalist for the American National Book Award.
New York in ’75: this was the beginning of the US punk scene, with bands like Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones and the New York Dolls. Smith experienced disenfranchisement, unemployment, and extreme-poverty. And along with all these other bands, a hefty dose of androgyny. Very punk, tearing down neo-Liberal binaries of gender and the desired body. How many genders have you met? I’ve met Female, Male, FtM transgender, MtF transgender, talked with third-gender eunuchs and a eunuch male, and exchanged emails with a self-identifying gender-queer woman.
But ‘75 in New York City had everything that seventies punk would become– rock’n’roll, Max’s Kansas City, and unaffordable housing. What was missing, that punk first gained in UK in ’76, was the rebellion.
To open the album, she repeats, “My sins my own, they belong to me.” So ask yourself, what else, then, if anything, belongs to her?
In Gloria, Patti Smith sings as a genderless figure desiring a woman– she has no gender. She has a way with words, to be sure, and a rhythmically emphatic vocal style, “I let my eyes rise to the big tower clock, and I heard those bells chimin’ in my heart, goin’, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong.”
Birdland is the first of two nine-minute epics on the album. It begins with the death of a rural male youth’s father, goes aboard a “not-human” spaceship of emotional pain and loss, and ends with skat-influenced nonsense– “Shaba-doo-wap, shaman-doo-way.”. It makes little narrative sense, but in her abstraction there is always concrete imagery, with at least the potential for literal meaning. Notice the fine details, this is high lyricism on it’s most epic scale. One always has to wonder about the influence of possible drug usage in lyrics this strange, but Smith claims none in her Autobiography, Just Kids. Like Ozzy Osborne after here, Smith simply has a non-normative lived-experience, mentally, coming though in her lyrics. Anyrate, the binary-busting power is enormous. I would argue it is this chorus of “they’re [their] not human… I’m not human… we’re not human,” that come closest to a sensible meaning of this song– a song about grief. The grieving process is an experience that feels, or perhaps makes one, not-human. However, this is my reading, a reading exterior to the text. Horses is true open literature, open to multiple interpretation and personal, subjective meanings.
Free Money is my favorite of her tracks. Though nominally about winning the lottery– by no means a free winning of money– and escape from wretched poverty and sickness, free money is also a rocking deconstruction of Marxist capital– not oxymoronic, Marxist in the sense that history is motivated by class struggle and exchange of goods. That is true radicalism, if not true rebellion. Busting the greatest binary of all, the haves and have-nots. But even for a singer as wild as Smith, it is only “when we’re dreaming,” that this binary can be deconstructed. Is this the American Dream? Is that possible in punk, in Post-Modernism. Certainly Beat Poets were concerned with the American Dream, but is mostly absent from the punk project. When all is torn down, the American Dream does not remain.
Land begins with a clear reference to drug usage, “boy was in the hallway, drinking a glass of tea.” However this boy is nameless, merely the boy. The next character introduced, Johnny is the protagonist. The boy stabs Johnny, and he, Johnny, sees “horses, horses, horses, horses… white, shining, silver… with their nose in flames…, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.” This vision makes a punker like Patti Smith sing her rockin’est Rock and Roll, Elton John style “do the whatusie… go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud, go.” In his dying moments, Johnny seems to journey across time-space (yes, time-space) across, a “place called space.”
Then comes the definitive moment of the album. “There is no land but the land, and no sea but the sea of possibilities… no key but the key… and I looked at Johnny and handed him a branch of cold flame. The waves were comin’ in like stallions… I put my hand inside his cranium.” Sweet. And totally punk rock. When she repeats the word seas of possibilities, she puns on seize the possibilities.
I especially like her lyric, “the Tower of Babel, they knew what they were after.” Her lengthy lyrical poems become a rebuilding of the Tower of Babel– much like Ezra Pound’s grand project, the Cantos– with Smith speaking in tongues. Smith then convincingly describes the un-experienceable moment of death, as, “he felt himself disintegrate and went into a black tube,” and the song ends with “there was a man dancing to a simple Rock’n’Roll song.” Woah. This song is what’s known as a death-trip, a neuro-chemical result of the process of dying. Look forward to your own.
The album ends with a punk rock cover of the already pre-punk the Who — their My Generation. Pete Townshend has good claim to inventing the electric guitar power chord fifth, though Johnny Ramone made it all-encompassing. The song and the album end with Smith’s declaration, “we created it, let’s take it over.” This is seemingly revolutionary, but what is the literal meaning of that phrase. What did Smith’s we create, that now needs to be taken over? My generation, perhaps?– few Marxists and Post-Structuralists would agree with her on that. Certainly we did not create the binary stigma systems at work in neo-Liberal Capitalism. No one as free as Patti Smith can be accused of creating those. Just another abstract sentiment, but a lovely sentiment.