‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.’
So begins Patti Smith’s 1975 debut album, Horses. Even though it was not an overnight success, the album has gone on to become one of the most iconic rock albums of all time, inspiring more and more imitators with each passing decade. The sound of the album is a combination of classic rock and roll, early punk experiments, and neo-Romantic poetry, seeped in queerness.
The album begins with a reimagining of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ that is so good it is even better than the original. As with many of Smith’s covers, the lyrics have been slightly rewritten and feature Smith’s poetry as a supplement to the original lyrics. Every song Smith covers becomes her own to a certain extent, existing in a world of co-creation between her and the original artist. The meaning of the song becomes highly queered as Smith doesn’t change the song’s perspective from male to female, leading some listeners (even now) to think that with the seduction of Gloria, Smith was coming out as a lesbian. A similar attitude was struck with ‘Kimberly’, a later track on the album that doesn’t quite match the power of the others.
Following ‘Gloria’, ‘Redondo Beach’ takes its name from a beach in California that was popular with the queer population at the time. It follows the style and beat from the growing American interest in the reggae scene. The song’s deceptively simple structure shouldn’t hold the listener back from lyrics exploring the cruising scene of the early 70s. (The ever sexually-ambiguous Morrissey, who considers Smith to be a major influence on his work and wrote of hearing Horses for the first time as a major life experience in Autobiography, issued a cover of ‘Redondo Beach’ a few years ago.)
Starting with a calm piano riff, ‘Free Money’ builds into a crazy rock and roll free-for-all that explores the American obsession with money. Smith presents the desire to strike it rich without having to put in any effort through the eyes of someone wanting to win the lottery – the ultimate way to get rich without lifting a finger. While it doesn’t pay off for the song’s protagonist, Smith is able to deliver a great performance of a track that sounds like it could belong in a reimagining of Cabaret.
Two of my personal favourite tracks on the album, ‘Birdland’ and ‘Land’, begin as performance pieces that owe their identity not only to beat poets like Ginsberg but also to the improvisational jazz tradition. The stronger of the two, ‘Land’, is, along with ‘Gloria’, one of the most popular songs that Smith performs in concert to this day. ‘Land’ begins as the story of a severely bullied boy, Johnny, who starts to have visions of mystical horses on the last day of his life. In many ways, the song represents the theme and musical style of the entire album in a single track, building on rifts from the previous songs to create a new melody, incorporating elements of Fats Domino’s ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, and opening the door to an American mythology that is very much Smith’s own.
‘Elegie’ winds the album down with a penultimate quietness. It is a memorial to those who had passed away in Smith’s circle. There are songs which take on new meanings with the passing of time and the evolution of an artist. Now, I can’t help but listen to it and feel the song is a tribute to the many friends Smith lost in the years before there were treatments for HIV. It’s a quiet song, and sadly the first of many that she would write to remember the passing of those she held dear. It is the most developed song on the album, with a different resonance for every listener as Smith evokes the dead.
The album closes with a live cover of the Who’s anthem, ‘My Generation’. There are times when I sincerely wish that this song could become a queer anthem – it really is more suitable than ‘Born this Way’. Each queer generation has a radically different experience than the one that preceded it. As such, each generation has always clashed with and slightly rebelled against the one before it. We are claiming a space for our generation, separate from our elders. Smith’s vocals scream across the decades to touch the soul of our disaffected youth.
It feels like Patti Smith has found her greatest influences in queer men. Rarely does an interview go by that she does not mention her love of Rimbaud, a 19th century French poet who had a very public, scandalous affair with another poet, Paul Verlaine. (Smith used to claim that Rimbaud was her boyfriend, so dedicated was her obsession.) William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were also critical influences on her work and dear friends.
‘I had the biggest crush on William,’ she says in A Man Within, a documentary about Burroughs’s life. ‘I had this fantasy that he would fall in love with me and we would get married…’
But more than any other contemporary influence, it becomes apparent that no one was a deeper influence and closer collaborator than Robert Mapplethorpe. Her 2008 memoir, Just Kids, makes it apparent that even after their romantic relationship ended, Smith still loved Mapplethorpe deeply. Her recently re-released prose-poem, The Coral Sea, is a tribute to Mapplethorpe in his final days – a fantasia about one last voyage. For many years, each functioned as the other’s muse.
The album cover, a photograph by Mapplethorpe, has remained one of the most iconic pictures of Smith. The simplicity of the cover stands in contrast with so many of the albums of the period. Smith has long-held a unique, androgynous sense of fashion. It’s a much simpler kind of androgyny than Grace Jones or David Bowie’s high-fashion androgynous characters of the same period – free of makeup; wearing street-ready outfits.
This is the album that brought Smith onto the radar almost 40 years ago. It amazes me that after all this time Smith has never really found a mainstream audience, just as she has never really found a major audience in the LGBT+ community. There are times when I think that her place in history will be decided not by her music but by her connection to Burroughs, Ginsberg and Mapplethorpe. I cannot predict what the future holds for Patti Smith and her place in music history, but even if she never obtains a Mick Jagger level of fame, Horses will always be a shining example of the queer influence on rock and roll.