When he was 15 years old, Michael Stipe saw Patti Smith on the cover of Creem magazine and thought that she looked like Morticia Addams. And because of that he went and bought her seminal album, Horses, and and album that he says “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order.”
This album, if you didn’t know, is good. It’s desert island good. And whenever you see someone compiling a list of top albums, be it 100 best or 500 best or even just a 20 Near-as-damn-it perfect initial efforts list, then guess what? This album is on there.
And while a song like “The End” by the Doors may be talked about more, and may even have made a bigger splash on the cultural consciousness, which is not something I can say I always care about, especially since Patti Smith’s Horses contains probably one of my favorite songs ever in rockdom, “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De),” a nearly 20 minute mega-opus (suck it, “The End,” which is only 12 minutes long) to something dark and primal and horribly and wonderful danceable in our core. It makes “The End” look like an even bigger cartoon than it already is.
Of course, that doesn’t say much at all, really. Patti Smith was developing a raw but intellectual and very feminist kind of rock n’ roll and Jim Morrison was just getting fatter and more ridiculous in his “Lizard King” and “erotic politician” rut.
Like so many men, Robert Mapplethorpe had a thing for women and snakes.
As a classic rock fan, especially growing up, I went through a phase of idolizing Morrison, rock n’ roll’s favorite jester, and most everyone else probably did too. It was junior high for me, as I sat there and read John Desmore’s biography, and thought about how much it sucked that Jim died and entertained notions in my brain that maybe he faked his death and was alive somewhere out there playing Chinese checkers with John Lennon and Elvis and JFK and… man, what an idiot I was.
“Most of my poems are written to women because women are most inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women. The masculinity in me gets inspired by the female. I fall in love with men and they take over. I ain’t no women’s lib chick. So I can’t write about a man, because I’m under his thumb, but a woman I can be male with. I can use her as my muse. I use women.”
-Patti Smith, from Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History Of Punk by “Legs” McNeil and Gillian McCain.
But that was a long time ago and eventually I went through a Patti Smith phase. I don’t know when it ended, if ever, really, but I can tell you where it began, it’s infancy being somewhere in 1996. That’s when REM’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi album came out, with it’s first single being “E-Bow The Letter,” featuring Patti Smith.
I had always known of REM before that album because I was a child who grew up with the radio and the MTV within reach, but with this album I realized that they were something better than what the radio or the vapid “music television” of the time could offer you. There was an eccentric warmth and depth to their music, and with this single, I was captivated because at the time, it was just so wonderfully bizarre. I wish I could post the actual music video up there for you, but that live performance will have to do, If not, here’s REM performing the song at the Tibetan Freedom Concert back in 1998 (God, do you remember those?) with that lazy eyed (that’s for you, Light) Thom Yorke. I remember that Yorke did a fine job with the song, but you can’t tell in the video because of the poor sound recording on his face. Though he does a fine job here on another song I love off the same album, “Be Mine.”
That’s where my Patti Smith phase began. It crystallized roughly a year later while watching the second season finale of Millennium. Remember that show? Probably not. It was Chris Carter’s second baby after X-Files, during the era of weird grim and gritty crime procedurals that featured vision-having (“It’s my gift, it’s my curse”) psychics, this one being Lance Henriksen, who has a face like a wall of stone and a voice like a rock polisher. The first season was fairly decent enough, but you could tell that Carter was getting bored running the show, so he handed it off in the following season to his proteges Glen Morgan and James Wong (and the proto-Charlie Kaufman, Darin Morgan), two guys who can’t possibly do a decent movie, but you hand them genre TV and they may very well be geniuses.
I assume that their only direction in taking over the show during it’s second year was “Hey guy, I don’t know how in the fuck we got a second season pickup, but I’m sure we’re going to get canceled. Do whatever the hell you want, be weird as shit, and have some fun,” and that’s what they did, and let me tell you, it was excellent. Possibly one of the smartest and coolest single years of a TV show that I had ever seen, but a dangerous beauty it was. And then there was the apocalyptic season finale of that second year, in which a character has a… Well, to call it a mental breakdown brought on by the heaviness of the moment would be a bit of an under statement, but it’ll do in a pinch. But what makes the breakdown so perfect, and helps solidify that year of TV as a strong one for this show is that they developed a whole act of the show to that moment, which took the form of essentially a music video for Patti Smith’s “Land” off of Horses:
There I was back in 1997, a stupid kid in high school, curious as to how the season would end when this season came on and that scene comes on, and my mind blown and possibly ruined forever. Without describing the previous year of the show to you, let’s just say there’s a nice bit of imagery summing up events there and offering portents for quite a few of the characters. And it’s a pretty wonderful interpretation of the song as well (as well as a decent job of editing the song down to an under ten minute run time).
Other than those two bits of anecdotal history, I’m not going to talk about what this song means to me personally or anything of that nonsense. That’s just for me. Listen to the song, hopefully enjoy it, and find your own meaning and enjoyment in it, if there is any in it for you. I will just say that I do love the way the verse appropriated from Chris Kenner’s “Land Of A 1000 Dances” fits into the song, and other than that… do you remember an artist from several years ago by name of KT Tunstall?
If you don’t, well, then it’s not surprising since it’s been a few years. She was a harmless enough artist who I only bring up because her song “Suddenly I See” (and her career as well, possibly) was reportedly inspired by the cover to Patti Smith’s Horses album (which was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe), by the sight of a woman who was confident and comfortable as a rock n’ roll star. The cover to Tunstall’s album Eye To The Telescope is supposed to be an homage to the cover of Horses, but personally, I don’t feel it.
There’s a little place, a place called space, it’s a pretty little place…
Well, that’s just a bit on one of my favorite songs. Now I’d like to hear about one of yours.