Apocalypse Then


On October 30, 1975, the Daily News printed its “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” cover. But long before that other unelected president refused to bail out our defaulting boroughs, us New York kids already knew we were fucked. It was Taxi Driver time, as Punk magazine writer Mary Harron put it in the oral history Please Kill Me. The Bronx burned, roads collapsed, crime surged, and city agencies kept shutting down; it seemed the stench of the previous summer’s garbage strike would never leave. In September Ford was nearly assassinated—twice, in three weeks, by two different women. And a monumentally failed foreign policy was encapsulated by the image of hapless Americans scrambling, like drowning rats, to a helicopter on the roof of the Saigon embassy. Going to school with a switchblade in your chukka boot, a half-pint of Southern Comfort, and some Tuinals swiped from Grandma in your army surplus book bag—It was apocalypse Now, man.

Onto this stage rode Horses, the debut by a skinny South Jersey girl named Patti Smith, released in November 1975. A number of years before the nexus of urban musical poetry would shift uptown and to the outer boroughs and explode bigger than anyone’s wildest dreams, Smith spit verse at readings at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, pal Lenny Kaye accompanying her freestyles with bursts of electric guitar. By the time of her famous seven-week stand at CBGB with fellow travelers Television in the spring of 1975, her performance readings had evolved into actual rock ‘n’ roll, although it was some next-level shit: heated sung-spoke visions of gender-melting sex and a violent, sneering, white-light quest for transcendence harnessed to garage band hooks and free-jazz liftoffs. Adding soundman-drummer Jay Dee Daugherty to a lineup that now included Kaye, pianist Richard Sohl, and bassist-guitarist Ivan Kral, the group hunkered down that summer and early fall with producer John Cale to make a record that represented a historic transition point in rock. With the formalism codified by The Ramones and Never Mind the Bollocks still to come, it was Horses that announced a shapeless, limitless New Thing, connecting rock’s deepest ’60s adventuring to punk’s Lower East Side birth throes.

This month, Horses has been reissued in a package that includes a live recording of the LP as performed in June 2005 during London’s Meltdown festival, which Smith curated. And on November 30 and December 1, the expanded lineup of the Patti Smith Group that performed in London—with Television guitarist Tom Verlaine and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea—will play Horses live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Earlier this month, Smith (over tea in a MacDougal Street café) and Kaye (over tea in his Brooklyn apartment near the Manhattan Bridge), talked about making Horses on the occasion of its 30th birthday.

Where were you living when you recorded Horses?

PATTI SMITH Here on MacDougal. I just had a room facing the street, I think it was 107. It was nice—I could just walk to work. We recorded it at Electric Ladyland on 8th Street. It was great to record in the studio that Jimi Hendrix had designed to do his future work, which of course he never got to do. I was very conscious of that; it’s why so much of the record is devoted to him—the long piece “Horses,” and “Elegie.”

The record conjures a lot of rock heroes. How did you decide to do the cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”?

PS When I started performing, I’d do poetry and a couple of songs. When Lenny and Richard and I evolved, we started merging the poems with rhythmic patterns, so the poem became like a prequel to the song. I like simple, three-chord rhythms. And “Gloria” is so universal. It’s so beautifully chauvinistic, so I decided that I would do the ultimate chauvinistic version.

My opening lines [“Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine”] were from a poem I’d written in 1970; I’d performed it as a poem with Lenny in 1971 when we did our very first poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church together. So the evolution was an organic process.

There was always a lot of improv in the way you worked live. Was it hard to transpose that to the studio?

PS Only because I didn’t have much studio experience at that time. For me, improvising is just pulling from the atmosphere. And I was surrounded by my compatriots, so it was a positive atmosphere. I still remember to this day improvising “Birdland” knowing they were right with me. I remember the exact moment where I peaked—the line in it that’s like [incanting] “Shoot ’em like light/like Muhammad boxer”—my little tribute to Muhammad Ali, y’know? It was a moment where you shiver.

LENNY KAYE I’ll always remember “Birdland” going and going and getting wilder and wilder until we felt interstellar . . . just all of a sudden looking down at one’s hands as they’re playing and knowing that what you’re connected to is not your conscious mind.

PS Lenny, Richard, and I could just move on a canvas together, we knew each other so well. We were in sync.

I read somewhere that you were equally inspired by John Coltrane and Johnny Carson.

PS My two Johnnys [laughs]. Johnny Carson taught me how to spar, to not be daunted by hecklers. ‘Cause I got heckled a lot in the early years—really a lot. From Coltrane I learned about a more spiritual kind of improvisation. Coltrane, like, talked to God, visited the universe, went really far out, but then came back. From him I learned you could cast a line very far out, but you still have to reel yourself back in.

You guys were such an integral part of the scene, but you don’t really appear too much in [the punk oral history] Please Kill Me.

LK Well, that book isn’t really about music. I’m as big a fan of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as anybody. But we had a very strong work ethic. We didn’t have time or energy to waste chasing drug demons. You don’t hear too many scandal stories about our band. And if you do, they’re probably not true.

The Ramones template would become punk rock, and Lord love it. But for us [punk] was always a sense of the new, of possibility—that you could get up on that stage and take the accumulated weight of rock ‘n’ roll history and perhaps find a piece of that history for yourself.

The end of the cover of “My Generation” from the London show, where you mention George Bush and our collective responsibility for what he’s doing, really brought things up to the moment, I thought.

PS Well, we like to have a good time and celebrate. But rock ‘n’ roll is our cultural voice. I saw it evolve in my lifetime—I’m gonna be 59 in December—and it was revolutionary, in every way. It gave young people an outlet to channel all this new energy that didn’t really compute with the generations before them.

I mean, look at what’s happening in Paris right now. Part of me wishes I could just go into the streets and say, y’know, “What the fuck? Here—here’s a Marshall; here’s a Strat.” That’s the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll: It’s a voice.