The needle hits vinyl, and for a brief moment, you hear a stately piano introduction. And then, you hear the first, startling, words.
Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.
That piano introduction and those words represent what is certainly among the most striking album openers in the history of rock music. The song from which they come, “Gloria,” is a perfect example of Patti Smith at her absolute best. In fact, it is perhaps the best example of what Smith, at her best, does so well – a fusion of music, poetry and spoken word performance that when done poorly can be embarrassing, but when done well is nothing short of breathtaking.
On the album cover, Patti Smith – in a photograph taken by her great friend and muse Robert Mapplethorpe – looks as if she is ready to take over the entire world. The way that her hands are framed around her slight body suggests vulnerability. But then you see the look on her face, you gaze into those eyes, and you see nothing but absolute confidence. A look that says, “yeah, I know it – I’m not like anything you’ve seen before, but even though I might look like a waif, I am going to change the way that you look at the world.”
I remember my first exposure to Patti Smith almost as if it were yesterday. Saturday Night Live, April 1976, with Ron Nessen –at that time, the White House Press Secretary for President Gerald Ford – as the host. She was introduced, and ripped into a version of “Gloria” that must have had the President’s pollsters wondering if the election was lost right there. I’d never seen anything quite like it, and neither had my mother – she was alternatively amused and horrified, so naturally I kept my opinion to myself.
It could be argued – and I think it has been argued – that other Patti Smith albums are “better,” or “more consistent,” or “express more accomplished musicianship” than “Horses.” And while all those things may be true, it doesn’t really matter. There have been two times in the career of Patti Smith that she has created transcendent art – “Horses,” and “Gone Again” – the latter being the first album released following the untimely deaths of her husband, her brother, and her great friend Mapplethorpe. But as great as “Gone Again” is, and as good as many of the other albums are, she achieved a pinnacle with “Horses.” I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It’s exciting like few other albums I’ve ever heard, and if anything, I’ve probably underrated it.
As good as “Redondo Beach,” “Free Money,” Kimberly,” “Break It Up,” and “Elegie” are, the heart of “Horses” lies with its three epics – the aforementioned “Gloria,” “Birdland,” and “Land” – the latter two clocking in at over 9 minutes each. I go back and forth on which of those latter two I prefer; sometimes the beautiful juxtaposition between Patti’s vocals and Richard Sohl’s piano sells me on the former, and other times the sheer drama and tension of the latter win me over. And what’s great is that it doesn’t really matter – they’re both amazing.
What “Horses” has that sets it apart from all of Smith’s other albums, and about 99% of albums ever released, is the emotional connection it achieves – a direct line straight through the heart.
Horses, Patti Smith (1975) Produced by John Cale
Gloria/Redondo Beach/Birdland/Free Money/Kimberly/Break It Up/Land/Elegie