Horses

My first experience with the Godmother of Punk was thanks to R.E.M., a decidedly not-punk band.  Back in the summer of 1996 they released one of their most underrated albums, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, and Patti Smith sang backing vocals on the album’s lead single, “E-Bow the Letter”.  Actually, it was early September and Ohio State hadn’t started yet (before the semester switch, OSU’s autumn quater always began the last full week of September, which usually meant I had a few boring extra weeks of working for the Evil Empire and attending high school football games…Go Eagles!), so I was still home for the summer, but I remember My Generation, a cool independent record store in Westlake was having a midnight release party (somewhat ironic since “My Generation” is  a bonus track on the CD edition of “Horses”…recorded at the Agora in Cleveland, Ohio one month and one day before I was born :)).  So I convinced the Gear Head to go with me (we had just finished a run of “Grease” at the Ashtabula Arts Center) and we made the trek out to C-Town.  Now Gear Head wasn’t even a big R.E.M. fan, but he had fun scouting out used bin for Def Leppard albums, and I actually ran into a friend from the 19th floor of Lincoln Tower (my dorm and floor at OSU), The Unstoppable Mary K, who lived nearby in Parma and who is possibly the biggest R.E.M. fan I ever met.  Small world.  Especially in the day before cell phones, Facebook, and constant communication.

So “E-Bow the Letter” was my first experience with Patti Smith, and I have always enjoyed her vocals in that song (although their is a pretty awesome version floating around the world wide interweb with Thom Yorke singing her part).  What I never realized before was how the half-spoken word lead vocal by Michael Stipe was very much influenced by Patti Smith’s song “Birdland” from this album.  Another of my favorite bands, Pearl Jam, has a similar almost-spoken word track titled “I’m Open” that also owes a debt to “Birdland”, and neither of those bands is a punk band (well, sometimes Edward Louis Severson III thinks he’s a punk, but he’s a surfer, not a punk).  Which brings me to my point that even though Patti Smith is considered to be one of the primary figures in the birth of New York punk rock, her influences go far beyond that genre.  This is the first female singer on the list that isn’t a folk or a pop singer (actually just the third female artist on the list, and James Taylor is nowhere to be found this time), and Patti Smith’s influence in the world of rock and roll is substantial.  Many of the riot grrrl bands of the nineties like Hole and L7 used Patti Smith as a blue print, as well as other more mellow singers like Natalie Merchant, who covered Smith’s “Because the Night” on her MTV Unplugged album.

In a related note, I guess I should mention that even though her status as the Godmother of Punk is well known, this is not a punk rock record.  Sure there are hints of what would come after the birth of punk rock, but this album is way more of a rock record.  Actually, its a very artistic record, incorporating Patti Smith’s interpretations of other artists’ songs (opening with her radical version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and working Chris Kenner/Fats Domino’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” into “Land”), and moving into the realm of free verse poetry on “Birdland” and parts of “Land”.  There is also reggae death music in “Redondo Beach” and good old fashioned optimism in “Free Money”.  “Break It Up” is a counter cultural transcendent song in the vein of the Door’s “Break on Through”, and Smith emotes genuine sentiment in “Kimberly” and genuine regret in “Elegie”.  It’s sort of a rock and roll roller coaster ride, but it works.  And its good value for the $8.08 I spent on this album on Amazon.

Other lists: Patti Smith is #83 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers and is also #47 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.  “Horses” is also #10 on the list of the 100 Greatest Debut Albums.

My favorite track: “Birdland”

Honorable mention: “Gloria”

A word from the Princess: “I think she has a jagged little pill!”

Quote: “People say ‘beware’ but I don’t care.  The words are just rules and regulations to me (me).”

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