Patti Smith Greil Marcus - Essay

Greil Marcus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first question about "Horses," Patti Smith's debut album, might be called the Janis question—it comes up whenever a particularly exciting performer has fashioned a distinctive style, attracted a fierce public following, and then steps into a studio for the first time. Either the style informs the record, or the process of making a record causes the performer to alter the style, the result being, more often than not, a garish parody that is forced, hysterical, or both. In that case, the record can be counted on to provide a spurious, instant satisfaction; about a month later, it drops dead. Cheap thrills.

What has happened in Patti Smith's case is something else again. She had made an authentic record that is in no way merely a transcript once-removed of her live show. The record not only captures Smith whole, it offers shadows, perspectives, and shadings that few of her fans could have caught before. (p. 97)

But if the disc captures Smith, it also exposes her. Those new shadows and perspectives that come off the record add power to her music, but they also, after a few listenings, begin to undermine its incantatory momentum. The concepts that lie behind Smith's performance—her version of rock and roll fave raves, the New York avant-garde, surrealist imagery and aesthetic strategy, the beatnik hipster pose, the dark night of the street punk soul, and so on—emerge more clearly with each playing, until they turn into shtick.

Which is to say that after a time one hears points of reference more clearly than a point of view. The brutal, physical details of the self-mutilation in Smith's most ambitious number, "Horses," take one right back to the terminal violence best represented by Bunuel and Dali's [short film] "Un Chien...

(The entire section is 737 words.)