Patti Smith

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Paul Nelson

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If critics are having nightmares these days, one of the worst of them will undoubtedly be about not liking "Horses," Patti Smith's ubiquitous debut album. Without missing a beat, the nation's linotypers seem to have shifted from Springsteen to Smith, and there is no escaping this strange New Jersey Nightingale. Sneakers are out, Rimbaud is in, and I feel so poeticized I could die. However, after listening to the record a dozen times, not only do I not like "Horses," I never want to hear it again—these days a difficult admission to make.

"Horses" is so clearly a classically idiosyncratic "first" album that perhaps the artist's subsequent records will illuminate its not inconsiderable virtues and make it seem much better in years to come than it seems now—even the mistakes of heroes can be heroic. I doubt it, but I hope so. Inwardly vulnerable and outspokenly naïve, Patti Smith is after all a heroine only half-baked, though she seems to have accepted her (possible) stardom as if it were a divine right….

"Horses" plods far more than it prances.

Poet Patti Smith loved rock-and-roll long before she decided to become a rock-and-roll singer. And once the decision was made, I suspect, she accepted it as already accomplished fact, rushing through her first album as if some kind of transition or training period were unnecessary. She can talk all she wants to about Mick, Keith, and Brian, but "Horses" sounds less like a Rolling Stones record than a poetry reading at the local "Y." She may look, she may even think, rock-and-roll, but more often than not her carefully precise recitations lack the craziness of the real pandemonium she is striving for. Right now, it's all too serious, not enough fun.

Try as I might, I simply cannot warm to the music and poetry of "Horses." I respect the effort behind it, but how much can you respect a record you wouldn't dream of playing for pleasure? "Patti Smith is nothing if not new" is the line of defense her admirers offer to mockers, but the album sounds to me like a morbid, pretentious rehash of Jim Morrison and Lou Reed, Smith's two major late-Sixties influences. Even Land, the best song in it, said to be based on a vision of Jimi Hendrix's last hours, metamorphoses from the Velvet Underground into the Doors for one of its neatest tricks. Free Money, another of the better cuts, cleverly weds love to money, making all the double entendres triple, but musically it is again derivative of the late, lamented Underground….

Poetry, I suppose, is the part which defies translation. Patti Smith is a good poet, but even the best of her work seems—I've struggled hard to characterize it—pointlessly pregnant. "Horses" is too pregnant to be taken seriously, yet it is surely not funny nor meant to be. It is pregnant past the point of aesthetic return, so heavy at times that it cannot make the simplest movement with grace. And when those huge coils of self-important surrealism unwind aggressively toward me, I find it urgent to look for a way out of this place. I've been here before, and it hasn't aged well. Razorblade Alley and Eyeball Lane still look the same, and over there on Arcane Avenue at the Dying Swan Motel and Piano Shop, where only the upper cases hang out, they still measure a man by the width of his donkey and the height of the A in his Art. And you never could get a good meal there anyway. In the early Sixties, I had a friend on Philosopher's Row; he used to play all his "serious" records in a dark room lighted only by black and purple light bulbs and iridescent art. Incense burned. Nonsense reigned. He would have loved "Horses." (p. 96)

Paul Nelson, in Stereo Review (reprinted by permission of the author), April, 1976.

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