“Horses,” The name of a Patty Smyth album, reads just as well as the other dozen or more books I have read in this Series! Audible is a godsend to me, as I never have time to sit down and read, which is my very favorite activity! Thank you, Jeff Bezos! Now please take some of that $37 billion you’re worth, and pay your employees a decent wage with full benefits including health care; Once you do this, you may truly be the greatest business on earth! Yours truly, Pat Chaz
I recently read Philip Shaw's 33 1/3 book length essay on Patti Smith's seminal album Horses. Shaw is a Reader in the English Department at the University of Leicester; therefore his analysis is rife with theorists like Lacan, Benjamin, Freud, Jung, and others. But I think the real strength of his book lies in the biographical sketches he provides about her early life and development as an artist. Shaw does an admirable job with explaining how Smith got tot eh point where she could record an album like Horses and provided insight into the background and lyrics of the songs. For example I was unaware that "Redondo Beach" was code for a gay beach in the LA area. It was interesting to hear her past with people like Sam Shepard and the whole downtown scene. I find many of Smith's songs timeless-and the ones from this album include "Land," "Gloria," and "Redondo Beach."
Horses is one of the 100 or so albums that actually deserves a book written about it. Everything about it, from the innovative blend of poetry and garage rock, to the iconic cover art, has become interwoven into the fabric of rock and influenced countless bands. What Phillip Shaw’s 150-page mini-book on Horses accomplishes is that it dissects the influences, both musically and lyrically, which helped Patti Smith and her band shape the songs on Horses. Shaw dives deep to show how Smith drew on events from her life or other people’s songs and use them as a springboard for her own creations (like on “Kimberly” and “Gloria”). Where the book falters is that it lacks insider perspective, with none of the people involved in making the record contributing first-hand insights (there are some quotes reprinted from other sources). Without that crucial piece of info, this stands strictly as a fan essay, which is intriguing for other fans, but can hardly be called the final word on the album. There isn’t much here that couldn’t have been learned from the multiple Patti Smith biographies in print, Please Kill Me, From Velvets To Voidoids or the liner notes from the expanded edition of Horses.
Patti Smith's masterpiece *Horses* is probably more deserving than most rock and roll records of serious academic study, especially given that Smith steeped herself in both high culture and rock history before making it. The best parts of the book are its artistic biography of Smith prior to its release.
On the other hand, the book relies heavily on the "theory" of Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and other late twentieth century noncemongers, whose melange of Marx and Freud persuaded the academic Left to waste its days in unintelligible, irrelevant indolence for a time. This hurts.
Shaw, for example, makes note of the androgyny of Mapplethorpe's dramatic cover photograph. He's not the first to notice. He relates it quite properly to the dandyism cultivated by French symbolist poets such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, artists that rank high in Smith's constellation of high culture influences. He goes on to describe the photograph as a statement that the "phallus is no more privileged than any other signifier", which does not appear to be meaningful, much less insightful. I'm not sure it contributes to understanding, even if kicking the privileged phallus is always fun. And he misses entirely the opportunity to compare Mapplethorpe's stark androgyny with the somewhat more baroque androgyny of male artists like David Bowie or Marc Bolan, which would appear to be immediately relevant in the context of Smith's Max's Kansas City days.
The high themes of sexuality and mortality run through the record. A Freudian take on the record is certainly a valid approach given these themes. Shaw's text is quite helpful when it doesn't go adrift in the lotus land of deconstruction. When it does, you can skip ahead a bit without missing anything.
I'm disposed towards warm feelings for any fellow fan of Patti's, and have enjoyed a couple of other 33 1/3 titles, so I report with reluctance that I found this tome full of adequate hot air to heat a mansion through the most protracted of winters. We've all heard the sardonic quote (variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello or others) that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," and here's your proof. The author is a prof of 19th-century literature and critical theory at the University of Leicester and for the first 100 pages of the book he invokes a pantheon of psychoanalysts--Freud, Lacan, and Jung--gender theorists, cultural critics, and anthropologists in an attempt to deconstruct Patti's development as an artist. One supposes the justification for this high-handedness is Smith's love of Rimbaud and other literary figures and her proclivity for mixing high-culture aesthetics with punk rock, but the theorizing here is clearly overboard. For example, you remember "the big clock tower" Patti sings about in "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo"? Evidently it isn't simply a clock tower but a metaphor for "phallic authority" that relieves the "indeterminacy of the singer's gendered identity and sexual orientation." Who knew? My advice is to pick up Patti's National Book Award-winning autobio, "Just Kids," for the lifestory and to settle for your own personal impressions while enjoying Smith's groundbreaking debut recording.