28 October 2012

Hard Listening: Patti Smith, "Horses"

When I summon some of my most intense teenage memories, a primary sensation is of school bus seats. Are they the same everywhere? The color a sort of horseshit green. The texture a zombie version of leather, a third-generation imitation that isn't even vaguely trying for authenticity. Holes in some places letting the white cloth backing and then the yellow foam show through. And always cool and clammy to the touch, no matter how many kids were packed inside. Your cheek lay resting on the back — if you were motion-sick or queasily nursing an impossible crush or just very, very tired — and the side of your forehead made a little live circle on the frosty window glass, which rattled and buzzed in its frame. Inhaling, you smelled old foam and dust, infinitely stale. I was on buses a lot in middle school and high school, not just to and from school but often across the state to theater competitions. It cannot always have been dark on these trips, but the essential atmosphere is always the darkness of evenings in winter or early spring.

Claire and I are sitting toward the back. We hold a clunky Discman delicately to avoid skips, and we share a pair of headphones — earbuds not yet being ubiquitous, we simply turn the volume high and lean into the speakers, plugging our outside ears with our hands (and even then, the sounds of the bus and the theater kids around us make it a little hard to hear. We are working from memory; both of us have spun this record countless times).

Singing is a classic ritual of the drama bus ride home. It's a group thing, even if the social butterflies with the big musical-theater voices lead the way. The songs I like don't lend themselves to this campfire approach, but I love singing in a car anyway. In Kelly's minivan late at night on the way home from a show or a party in the middle of nowhere, my friends and I belt out our songs. Sleater-Kinney, the Clash, dozens of punk and ska bands on the mix tapes that circulate endlessly between us and whose sequence of songs we have memorized as well as any actual album, the next track keyed up in the back of our throats in the static pause before it begins. I'm too self-conscious to join the theater-kid sing-alongs. I don't have the talent to sing nicely without a lot of apparent effort or the self-assurance to belt it out without caring how I sound. At Girl Scout camp one year I overheard a girl complaining that I was "showing off my voice" when I sang along with everyone else -- showing off the voice that had frequently been judged not-good-enough in other contexts. It's hard to know how to use an in-between voice like that, especially when you're 16.

So Claire and I sit and strain to hear this album. There is a lot of silence in it anyway, a lot of space. A sense of an actual room. The opening chords come softly, a low church-bell cadence on piano. We just barely pick them up. I'm not sure when we start singing, but by the time we reach the chorus we are wild and audible, breathless with the excitement of football fans cheering on their underdog team.

"That's not how the song goes," notes one of our friends, a straight-laced theater boy a row back. He thinks we are listening to and fucking up Van Morrison's "Gloria." It takes us a minute to even understand what he means. For us, this is the primary text. Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine -- what use could the world even have anymore for a version that did not begin this way?

As Claire and I sang along with this album, we'd sometimes stop and look at each other and crack up with delighted disbelief at just how crazy she was being. There are words we've never managed to figure out. And the name of the band is . . . Twistelette? Twist-to-the-left? Take me up, up, to the belly of the ship, she stretches out over about a dozen bars, and later ends the song: We . . . like . . . bird . . . land. This almost Sesame Street thing. But there's a looseness to the album that makes the hippie weirdness work; it sounds like it all could be ecstatically spontaneous, and doesn't land with the thud of solemn calculation. And it doesn't interfere with the moments of aching poetry.

Or of forthright sex appeal. I knew even then that Patti Smith was not actually gay, I think (having almost certainly researched this online as soon as I brought the record home), but the female-directed sense of sex in the record felt convincing — probably because rooted in the power of the singer rather than in the object of desire. That strut a consummation in itself. Eileen Myles has written a little about being a young woman wanting to be a boy — not to be male, but to occupy the same cultural space that a boy does. To be independent and have adventures and make mischief selfishly and forgivably. To be, automatically, a protagonist. And there's a similar, wholly untortured sense of boyishness to Patti Smith, not engaging femininity in battle but just ignoring its expectations outright. In fact it took me a while to identify as a feminist when I was young, not because I disagreed with any feminist principles but because I had a hard time feeling that being female was all that essential to my character; I was reluctant to play up that accident of my birth too much.

So this skinny figure with a ratty halo of hair, an Oxford shirt, and a jacket jauntily slung over her shoulder staring out of the white album cover with utter self-possession -- androgynous but not sexless -- resonated with me. Horses (and Smith's book Just Kids, which I've just read) has plenty of affection for women, but it's mostly full of boys. She's watching them, drifting in and out of their stories as she tells them, merging with them in places. In "Land," there is a boy, on a beach or on a bed or in the hallway of a school, dying or being violently transformed; she arrives finally on the scene and touches his throat, his hands, his brain itself before all boundaries are erased, stuttering out with him: I, I, that's how I, that's how I, I died.

Few songs provide so clear a template for transformation through rock and roll. There's this scene of high-school violence and hysteria, of self-destruction undertaken not as an act of enmity toward the self but as the defiant answer to the angel who looks down at him and says, Oh pretty boy, can't you show me nothin' but surrender? (As she shouts sublimely on the CD's bonus track, a cover of "My Generation:" I don't need their fuckin' shit! Hope I die because of it!) Then this moment of perfect stillness -- he felt himself disintegrating, there was nothing happening at all / and go inside the black tube -- before a little window opens in the blackness onto a street scene, and there's the "sweet young thing" we met in "Gloria." Finally, in the last seconds:

In the sheets
there was a man
to the simple
rock and roll

I like and listen to "Elegie," which follows, but this has always felt like the end of the album for me. When I wasn't listening to it on a bus, I'd listen by putting on my headphones and lying down on my bed in the dark, letting myself be cleansed by this ocean of a record. At the end of "Land," Patti converges with her beautiful doomed boy and then there I am too, on my own sheets, twitching a foot to the rhythm, having drowned whatever ugly adolescent commotion had made me retreat to my room and now ready to make something, to take on that rock and roll strut for myself. Less alone in my wedge of Venn-diagram overlap between poetry and punk rock, the Watusi and Rimbaud.

Because it so demands my concentration and involvement, I don't listen to Horses much anymore, but when I do I often think I may be able to hear it anew after a gap of however many months. It always turns out that it is too deeply embedded in me to come at fresh; it's like trying to frighten yourself by shouting "Boo!" In a silent room I can reproduce every intonation, every stab of guitar in my head. I don't think I've ever put a song from Horses on a mix tape -- maybe "Gloria" or "My Generation." They're less songs than weird spastic meditation exercises, existing beyond the purposes of appreciation and built for total catharsis. It's almost not necessary for me to listen to the album anymore. The squeak in her voice, when she tosses it up and catches it midair — I've stolen that for my own use for years, and "Gloria" thunders through my head whenever I need to feel okay about going onstage. In smaller moments, too, the album is with me. Riding in a car at night, looking out over fields: It was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars, 'cause when he looked up they started to slip. That cold starlight made warm has always gotten me. This is a record that shapes and purifies the darkness, using wild noise to engineer a peaceful vehicle through the night.

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