Sometimes you can travel to the past, music your pilot.
December 1975—Patti Smith releases Horses. I’m a not so sweet 16.
March 2017—I am in a sea of fans at the State Theater in Cleveland, miles from my home in Denver, here to remember and reclaim the times I placed the record on my turntable and swayed, hypnotized, her poetry transformed to song. Tonight, I’m no longer the oldie at a concert; other 50-somethings who know all the lyrics surround me.
An enormous poster of the album cover hovers above the stage, and I am again nineteen, wearing a baggy white men’s dress shirt hanging off my body, not tailored, not tight, just a loose batch of wrinkles that said I could have slept in this. Rather than tossing my thrift shop special black men’s blazer over my shoulder, it covered my shirt and hid the waist of my black jeans. My Patti Smith attempt. I didn’t have her skinny rocker body, but I could cock my head and sneer, Raybans to hide my blue eyes, not tired, not jaded, only beginning to show the strain of late nights performing as a newcomer at CBGBs, Patti’s palace.
Many nights I scribbled onto my journal pages, listening to Patti’s music, falling into lyrics such as Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine. I would keep replaying the opening lines, waiting for the moment to chant G L O R I A. Patti became my muse. I searched bookstores for her poetry, “Girl Trouble”, published in 1972, the same year I was giving backrubs to girlfriends–as close as I could get, as safe a space for a yearning unnamed. I wanted my own G L O R I A.
Patti introduces the next song, the second on the record, “Redondo Beach is a beach where women love other women.” And I am again nineteen, listening to the song for the first time, imagining that Patti too desired women. I didn’t need proof to believe, because her lyrics became my vocals, what I couldn’t speak aloud, yet, because I didn’t know how.
Never return into my arms ‘cause you were gone, gone. And when I rode on my first motorcycle, on the back of a newly found acquaintance, Venice to Redondo Beach, I looked for those women loving other women, humming Patti’s lyrics in my head, a freedom against the wind. Gone, gone.
December 30, 1977–I met Patti for the first time at the 2nd Avenue Theater, a CBGBs offshoot. Not met like the kind of met where I shake her hand, hug, wave in recognition. But the kind of met where I fall. In love. Patti on the top of a piano. Screaming. Spitting. And in that hypnotic moment, when she sang “Birdland,” it was a love affair of words, a sultry incantatory presence: And they gathered in all directions, like roses they scattered / And they were like compass grass coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet.
Patti segues into “Free Money.” The quiet piano setting the tune, a slight entry of the bass, and then her voice. Every night before I go to sleep. Find a ticket, win the lottery. Then the drums start to kick in until the music rises to an urgent rhythm beneath Free money. Free money. Patti still kicks it. Rocks out. Defiant always.
Turn over the record and head towards Side B.
I didn’t want to be feminine, to wear red jumpers made from Simplicity patterns or flowing skirts matched to peasant tops. I’d spent years in baggie overalls, white t-shirts underneath. I didn’t want to be called sir. I just wanted to be the kin of Patti. Tonight, I am singing my way through the lyrics of Horses. She mesmerizes me now and mesmerized me then, when I sat on the edge of knowing what it meant to love, to write, to lose myself in the rock n roll of my icon.
I was goin’ crazy, so crazy I knew I could break through with you, / So with one hand I rocked you and with one heart I reached for you. She put the sex I imagined into the lyrics of “Kimberly,” into the yearning, into the part of me I couldn’t fully embrace, yet.
Patti helped me understand that space between boy and girl. It is that non-binary that characterized my love for the album and all its songs, but especially “Land,” when she mixes the seriousness of Johnny’s story, the urgency and violence with seemingly light lyrics: Johnny want to run and Do you know how to pony like bony maroney. These opposing images collided in one tune, different moods, yet all in a common orbit, like her audience.
And even though she plays other hits after the album, even after she has us turn from Side A to Side B, from the urgency of “Gloria” to the bounciness of “Kimberly,” nothing could measure to those eight songs of Horses. When she ends the album performance with “Elegie”, she encourages the audience to shout out their losses. Most hold silent, a reverence waiting for Patti’s words. She calls out the deaths I remember–Bowie, Jim Carroll, Amy Winehouse, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix.
Listening to Patti recreate Horses reminded me how I didn’t feel so alone. I wasn’t such a misfit. Hearing Horses performed live, Patti still rocking at 70, I also didn’t feel so old. This album gave birth to my punk poet, and she helped me celebrate all that I hid. We met again, and I remembered hope and an edge and a reason to keep replaying Horses.