Rocking Horses

Illustration by Alie WardIn 1978, Lester Bangs wrote a review of Patti Smith’s Easter album that opened with the declaration “I hate Patti Smith.”Bangs, who inspired Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, went on to admit: “Horses changed my life.”Last month, at the Troubadour’s sold-out 30th anniversary concert for Horses, Smith’s 1975 debut album, the club was packed with people wearing buttons, which read just that: “Horses Changed My Life.”Bangs wrote his love/hate review at a moment when it looked as if Smith had finally become a legitimate rock star. She had just released Easter, her third album, which featured a bona fide radio hit, “Because the Night,” co-written by Bruce Springsteen, and she was being embraced by the mainstream.Bangs seemed to feel that Smith and her longtime collaborator, guitarist Lenny Kaye, were miles from the hungry punk apostles they had once been — skinny bookstore clerks who made radical music at places like CBGB and occasionally wrote passionately, as he did, about rock & roll. (Smith had written for Bangs’ publication Creem, and if legend has it right, it was Kaye’s early essay on jazz that attracted a young Smith to her guitarist in the first place.)It’s always been hard for fans, and even early friends, of rock stars to watch them get bigger — possibly because as they get bigger, they appear to be moving away from us. Yes, sometimes their work becomes diluted in the ascent, but sometimes they only become what they were destined to be all along: stars.Either way, we get mad, infantile. Some, like Bangs, express that pain in a way that’s evocative. Most of us simply cry into the night: “Sellout!”The transition is made that much more difficult thanks to the romanticism surrounding the first time we’re introduced to these badasses. Bangs said it perfectly of Horses: “I’ve recognized that there was something almost supernatural about the powers it tapped, that no artist or audience can expect that kind of baptism in the firmamental flames every time.”I saw Patti Smith perform live for the first time in ’96 at the Roxy. After what had been essentially a 17-year retirement, she had leapt back into the cathartic world of rock after the deaths of her husband, the MC5’s Fred Smith; her younger brother, Todd; and her lifelong confidant/photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe.With original Patti Smith Band members Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye, a new album and a new boyfriend, guitarist Oliver Ray, she hit the road.I scored a spot right in front. Prowling the stage barefoot like a medicine woman, she conjured not only all the visceral energy of her past performances but something larger, something more religious than I had equated with live music. Her performance was primal and gut-wrenching, filled with piss-stained ghosts and soulful rock & roll wisdom. Watching her, I cried. As Bangs might have put it, I had been baptized.Last month’s Troubadour show was sold out by the time I caught wind of it. But I drove down to the club anyway. I walked back and forth along the blocklong line of ticket holders, asking, “Anyone have a ticket to sell?”A man in glasses close to the front of the line asked, “Is it for you?”I nodded. “Yes.”“Here, you can have it,” he said, pulling a spare from his hand.My patron was a marketing executive for Virgin Records and a true music fan. He told me he had already purchased the special-edition Horses/Horses anniversary re-release, which features an extra disc of new and live recordings, but he couldn’t bring himself to listen to it until he saw Smith perform it first.When they finally let us into the club, I was able to walk directly to the foot of the stage, almost exactly where I had been at the Roxy all those years before. As if the spot had been waiting for me.My host hung back a few rows. Beside me was a man wearing a Horses button. He told me he was an “old friend of Patti’s,” explaining that he’d arrived at the Troubadour early and spotted Smith through the club window. He knocked on the glass and she waved him in.“The rock & roll gods have been on my side,” he said with a smile that had no trace of irony.An hour later, staring at Patti Smith’s foaming spit, which had landed a mere few inches from my hand, watching her body weight so beautifully fill her black cowboy boots as they stomped the floor beneath them, I knew that the gods had been good to me too.“Patti, why is there a VIP section?” cried out one fan, referring to a small balcony that held six guests, including PJ Harvey, Rosanna Arquette and Johnny Ramone’s widow, Linda.Initially riled, Smith replied, “With all the stuff going on in the world right now, you’re worried about where people are sitting?”Accompanied at times by Flea on bass and Smith’s daughter Jessie on keyboards, Kaye and Smith played mostly songs off Horses, but they also did songs from later works, including possibly her most emblematic song, Easter’s “Rock N Roll Nigger.” Her “old friend” in the audience told me that Bono has been singing it on the current U2 tour.Lenny, Flea and Jessie thrashed away, as Patti leaned over the pit howling: “Baby was a black sheep. Baby was a whore. . . . Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger. Baby, baby, baby was a rock-and-roll nigger.”The crowd pushed forward, sweating, dancing. We sang at the top of our lungs: “Outside of society they’re waiting for me. Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.”And we all knew, as we had all night, there was no reason to get mad. Patti was still as much the real-deal apostle as she had ever been. Timeless and powerful as any true artist is supposed to be. Strengthened, not weakened with time. We could eat her, spit her out and eat her again. If Bangs were alive, he would have to agree. At least, he might allow the revision when I say, “Patti Smith changed my life.”


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