It’s funny how things can change. Then again, maybe things don’t change at all. They simply show themselves in different ways. And it’s a beautiful thing when that happens.
I recently got myself a new copy of Patti Smith’s Horses. It was an album I listened to for a while when I was in high school, but it didn’t really make an impression on me at the time. Horses soon faded out of my rotation and was probably sold at a garage sale. I recently saw a rerun of an interview Smith did with either Travis Smiley or Charlie Rose (I can’t even remember who) in which she spoke about her book Just Kids. I have been interested in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography since I was at university, and was drawn into the interview by Smith’s recollection of their friendship. I was immediately captivated by the way she spoke about their beautiful, yet troubled relationship. I was moved by her sense of care for her lover and friend. I was inspired to have another listen to Horses.
Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white cover photograph depicts Smith in an oblique contrast of striking energy and poised serenity. She is somehow both standoffish and inviting. There is an erotic masculinity fused to her bold femininity that does not appeal to the overt androgyny of time. She asserts a certain kind of power, possibly a magical one. Camille Paglia suggests the cover “ranks in art history among a half-dozen supreme images of modern woman since the French Revolution.” This supreme image informs the mood of the record. This rough-edged waif of a woman is the poet and singer who is able to magic away pain and suffering with beautiful, yet raw and dangerous music.
I will specifically look at the poetry of “Kimberly” and “Land” in this short piece to address the ritualistic aspect of Rock & Roll and the power that it wields.
“I feel like just some misplaced Joan Of Arc”
In the gentle song “Kimberly” Smith evokes a time in her youth when she and her baby sister, of the song’s title, witnessed a violent storm and barn fire. The singer holds Kimberly in her arms as she watches bats with “baby vein faces” fly out of the old burning barn that had been struck by lightning. The natural phenomenon of the fierce storm is expressed in apocalyptic terms of shifting and hitting planets and a falling and splitting sky that causes “existence to stop”. The singer conflates the intense natural events with the Fates calling on the baby while the baby’s starry gaze in return causes her to feel like some “misplaced Joan of Arc”. Nature’s wildness is allied with Pagan mythological goddesses, the Fates, who are capable of rupturing time while the innocence of the child evokes the human, pious, and martyred Joan of Arc. This is a seemingly peculiar combination of religious images, especially when considering the album’s opening lines. The album begins with the song “Gloria” and the much commented-on line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” In “Kimberly” Smith negotiates the transition from innocence to experience in diverse religious terms, including a kind of cleansing by apocalyptic fire, but maintains her rejection of original sin as her point-of-departure for her relationship with the Divine. She kneels and prays in the storm to keep her sister safe and to allow the child’s innocence to abide. She likens herself to Joan of Arc (albeit a misplaced version of her) as a communicator with God to express the way her heart reaches out for the child as she is “goin’ crazy” in the world of experience, the world of storms. Although she does not receive visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, or Saint Catherine, she does find possibility in the innocent “starry eyes” of a child that she is bound to by love, a love expressed in a song that arises out of the terrifying violence of experience.
“Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud”
The three-part song “Land” is wild and aggressive compared to the gentle “Kimberly”, but there is a tenderness in its empathy for the rough and bullied character Johnny. In the same way that Smith contrasts her dark vision of Gloria in excelsis Deo with Van Morrison’s “Gloria” at the beginning of the album as way to strike a bond between worship and Rock & Roll, the second part of “Land” violently interprets Chris Kenner’s upbeat “Land of 1000 Dances” as Johnny’s punishing beating and possible rape by magnificent, yet terrifying horses. Johnny is beaten and almost defeated, but he is restored from his “sperm coffin” by an Angel who goads him to not surrender, but to stand up for himself. He returns to the battle, a “life filled with holes” and pain, with a vicious celebration of his many knives. However, his response turns musical. It is to dance violently as an appeal to poetry rather than to fight. His cocaine-fuelled watusis to the Twistelettes rejoices in the wild spirit of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Johnny’s saving grace is music and poetry, which reveals to the “I” of the song “a mare black and shining with yellow hair” that leads her to a sea of possibility in the turbulent third part of the song, “La Mer(de)”. It is through the sea and shit that Smith negotiates a possibility for creativity in contrast to the surreal land, for “there is no land but the land.”
Part III is a complicated contrast of sexual desire and death antagonized within a dance of feminine waves rolling like the masculine “Arabian stallions” that transform into sea horses. Smith has said the song is about Jimi Hendrix who could very well be “the black shining horse” who ultimately becomes the man in the sheets “dancing around to a simple Rock & Roll” song. Rimbaud and Hendrix were explosive creative geniuses whose music and poetry were short-lived. Rimbaud stopped writing poetry when he was 21 and Hendrix died violently by suffocation when he was 27. The song expresses the dangerous line between life and death in a creative expression that confronts the limits of its nature and subject. A certain kind of artist must approach and reveal this kind of wilderness if their work is to be truthful, and this way has its casualties. For Rimbaud it was a snuffing out of his creative desire while for Hendrix it was a physical death. Incidentally, Mapplethorpe was also taken from us far too soon in 1989. Smith, by courageously pursuing the album Horses, takes up the dangerous ritual of experiencing the terrifying aspects of life in music, dancing, and poetry at its wild and magical limit, the place where the intensity of life resides.
Smith’s Rock & Roll is the poison that heals, the confrontational death dance that unveils the possibilities of a vigorous and ultimately beautiful life.