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Patti Smith, “Horses/Hey Joe”

The other day I finished reading Just Kids, Patti Smith’s new memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and of her early years in New York as a fledgling artist and musician. The Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, the last vestiges of the Beat and Factory scenes—I can’t say I’m into the romance of that period. But I was affected by her tenderness toward the people she knew and learned from, and toward Mapplethorpe, her one-time lover and best friend. The final pages of the book, her visits from Detroit back to New York to be with him during his last days, are wrenching. And I was wholly absorbed by her search for a medium that suited her great striving to express herself artistically, and in the formation of the Patti Smith Group, a band I have loved but whose history I only know piecemeal.

I first heard Horses in my senior year of high school, and I remember when the needle of my Sears turntable hit the first words of this song, which are a description of some pretty violent gay sex, I had to quickly turn down the volume so my parents wouldn’t hear. Not that they would have paid much attention—by this point my music was probably only a kind of muted ruckus behind my bedroom door. After the locker-room sex part, the song meandered on through … what? 1950’s dance moves? Drugs? Death? Waves turning into horses? Who could tell? I tried to figure out what the song was about, because I thought, with its lyric about “the sea of possibility,” that it might tell me something about my gay fate, but I really couldn’t hang on to anything. Still, the rush of words, the great whirl of it all, were thrilling and cathartic like no other music I had heard.

And so now I know a little more. In Just Kids, there’s a scene where Patti and Robert take some hash and then walk down Christopher Street to the Hudson, where they see the sorts of things one saw going on down by the river in the 1970s. “The demon vision of the city,” she writes. “Random sex. Trails of glitter shaking from muscled arms.” It freaked her out. (To make matters worse, it was in the middle of a garbage strike.) So maybe the song “Horses”—and “Land,” the larger song structure of which it was part—was a kind of message to her erstwhile lover not to go too far over the edge in the S&M world that he was embracing. This clip, from The Old Grey Whistle Test, might bear out that interpretation. In the middle, she improvises this line: “If you are male and choose other than female, you must take responsibility of holding the key to freedom.” And maybe there’s some anger, or sadness, at losing the man she loved, and who loved her, to something beyond her control. From the album version: “We had such a brainiac-amour/but no more, no more.”

But who am I to say. And anyway, she writes that the “wild-boy imagery” of the song—William S. Burroughs used to come to CBGB’s to see her shows and sat at a front table with Mapplethorpe—is fused with “the stages of Hendrix’s death.” Thus, the segue here into “Hey Joe.” The song didn’t, in the end, have much to do with my gay fate, though I found it thrilling, and still do. For all its darkness, it never scared me, though I’ve always been a squeamish thing. There’s something reassuring about Patti’s narration. She’s disengaged from all the frenzied self-destruction, trying to calm it down. She’s the one who “seizes possibilities,” who holds out the “branch of cold flame.” Whatever that is.

Written by peterterzian

March 13, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Posted in Patti Smith


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