Patti Smith Looks Back on the Album Where It All Came Together
Punk's poet laureate speaks of 'Horses,' creative control and Milwaukee memories
Patti Smith changed plans for her Milwaukee concert when I reminded her of the date. “March 9—that’s the day I met Fred!” she says excitedly. “Oh my gosh.” And as a result, at her Thursday, March 9 show—her first in town in 38 years—Smith promised to perform a “Fred trilogy,” as she calls it, comprised of the three songs she wrote in the ’70s about her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith: “Because the Night,” “Dancing Barefoot” and a number rarely performed in recent years, “Frederick.”
Milwaukee was one of the first cities outside Smith’s New York home base where her music was widely embraced. Much of that attention resulted from the single-minded efforts of DJ Bob Reitman, who was already talking Smith up even before her debut album, Horses. On the night of Horses’ release in the winter of 1975, Reitman played the LP on the air in its entirety. Most of us had never heard anything like it. Raw as an open wound and yet broad in human sympathy, Horses was a head-on collision of high-octane rock with modernist poetry. Not unlike William Carlos Williams and other early 20th-century poets, Smith melded literary and colloquial influences. Arthur Rimbaud inhabited the lyrics of “Land” alongside ’60s dance crazes such as the Watusi and the Mashed Potato.
In the years since Horses, Smith accepted the Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan, sang at the Vatican for Pope Francis, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids, and saw her photography exhibited in museums. But Horses was what lifted her from the pre-gentrified Bowery into the international spotlight. Caught up in the scene that gathered in the tiny bar called CBGB’s, Smith endowed punk rock with a dimension beyond simple assertions and three chords.
“I didn’t start as a musician and I’m not a musician, really. I started as a poet,” Smith says about the origin of Horses’ songs. “Birdland” and “Horses” began as poems. The line that famously opened the album and framed her radical reinvention of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”—“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”—came from a poem she’d written in 1970. “Horses was a culmination of my evolution from poetry to performance; it all coalesced on that album,” she continues.
In the vast world outside lower Manhattan, Horses came as a shock; a flash of lightning that illuminated the mediocre state to which rock music had fallen. And another thing: Smith was a woman thrusting herself into an unknown role for women in rock. Few women fronted bands in the ’70s, and those that did usually trimmed themselves to fit male fantasies. Smith looked as if she didn’t give a damn about those fantasies. She was vaguely androgynous in appearance and her aggressive vocals bristled with forbidden desire. She sang “Gloria” without changing names or genders, sending an additional thrill of possibility into a song whose words and music already grabbed at the chance of ecstasy.
Part of Horses’ power came from the simple, perfectly paced playing of her guitarist, Lenny Kaye, who backed her at a St. Mark’s Place poetry reading as far back as 1971. Does she remember the first time they met? “I have an exact memory of that.” She recalls reading an article he had written about a cappella singers (Smith and Kaye were rock critics in the early ’70s). “I thought it was so touching. I thought he was a smart person I wanted to meet, and I did what people did in those days: I looked him up in a phone book.” Soon enough they began to collaborate. “I didn’t want to do a boring poetry reading. It was Sam Shepard who told me, ‘Why don’t you have someone play guitar?’ I asked Lenny and told him I wanted him to replicate a car crash with feedback on one of my poems. He did.”
Kaye is still playing guitar in the Patti Smith Group, as is her original drummer, Jay Dee Daugherty, recruited only weeks before Horses was recorded. “There wasn’t much calling for what we did at first,” Smith says. But by 1974 she was drawing attention. “We got a lot of press—maybe because I was female, maybe because we were doing something unfamiliar between my poetry and my shaggy hair. In ’74, [Bob] Dylan came to see me at the Bitter End music club. There was a picture of me and him on the cover of the Village Voice. The New York Times covered it. Then Clive Davis [president of Arista Records] asked to see me.”
Smith wrested control over nearly all aspects of the album that resulted, Horses. “I had to fight for everything. I missed out on getting the font I wanted for the album cover but I got 95%.” Her black-and-white front cover photo, taken by her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, stood up defiantly from the LP racks. “The Arista art department hated it! Originally they airbrushed my hair to make it look less messy. I made certain they reversed that decision! I didn’t get a lot of money from my recording contract, but I made certain that no decision could be made without mutual agreement. I got creative control.”
Smith wanted jazz-R&B producer Tom Dowd, but Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun wouldn’t release him for Horses. She had no trouble settling on John Cale, a member of a seminal New York band, The Velvet Underground. “I was very lucky he agreed to do it,” she said. “We locked horns sometimes, but he got as much out of me as he could. I was a fledgling; my musicians were fledglings.”
Horses will be performed in its entirety at her Milwaukee concert, followed by a cross-section of songs from throughout her catalogue. She mentions her ’88 comeback, “People Have the Power,” her first release after eight years of silence following her marriage. It will sound anthemic in today’s political situation.
“I couldn’t believe how fantastic the people of Milwaukee were,” she says, recounting her first concert here, a 1976 show at the Oriental Theatre. “It was a wild concert. Everyone knew the words to the songs. And that fancy old theater! I’d never seen a place like that. I hadn’t traveled much at all until then, and I couldn’t imagine how Milwaukee heard of us.” That first Milwaukee show occurred just days before she met her husband, already a hero to her as a member of the radical ’60s band MC5. After his death in 1994, Smith became more active as an artist, writing a pair of well-reviewed books and releasing six albums.
“We’re basically a European touring band now,” she says, adding that she’s eager to return to Milwaukee. Her last concert here was at the Milwaukee Auditorium, the building that has long since been transformed into the Milwaukee Theatre. It was one of her final U.S. shows before her retirement. “We’re not touring much, but it’s really nice to come back to places like Detroit and Milwaukee,” she says. “We had so much enthusiasm in those cities. They helped break us as a band.”
The Patti Smith Band performs Thursday, March 9 at 8 p.m. at the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave. Tickets are available from ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.