There was no better place to celebrate the end of International Women’s Day than at Northrop Auditorium, where the mystic 70-year-old punk-poet laureate Patti Smith performed her landmark 1975 debut album, Horses, in full to a sold-out, ageless crowd.
Smith sang with passion in front of a projection of the album’s iconic black-and-white Robert Mapplethorpe cover photograph. A fusion of beat poetry and three-chord, improvisational rock and roll, Horses is hardly a pretty album, and Smith recorded it to create a space outside rock’s established norms – or, as she once said, “to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different.” That small outsider space would eventually grow to be arena-sized, paving the way for punk rock for generations to come.
“Horses is beyond gender,” Smith told the audience, after saluting those who marched for women’s day. An album of liberation and rebellion, Horses is about breaking free from societal expectations, from stereotypes and the confining boxes that society uses to categorize people, from the limiting notion of thinking in terms of binaries. It’s the proclamation of a spirit destined never to be contained that changed the narrow perception not just of what a woman could do in rock, but who a woman could be.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” Smith began on Horses’ opener “Gloria,” an audacious nine-minute epic reworking of Them’s garage-rock stomp that served as an exhibition of Smith’s inner poetic power. Smith twisted and churned her voice to express purity and passion as Lenny Kaye’s guitar line grew increasingly untethered. In addition to Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, performers on the original album, Smith was also joined by her bassist of twenty years, Tony Shanahan, and her son, Jackson Smith, on piano.
Much of Horses is about communicating with the supernatural, the spiritual, the ineffable. “Break it Up” came to Smith in a dream, a vision of a Michelangelo-style statue of Jim Morrison bound in chains in a forest clearing, breaking free to become a winged angel. The wild, imagistic “Land” explores the stages of Jimi Hendrix’s death in staccato yelps.
Smith showcased her versatile range throughout the night, moving from the reggae-influenced “Redondo Beach” to the swaggering strut of “Kimberly,” while “Free Money” and “Land” moved with the velocity of a thousand-hoof stampede. With its beat-inspired contortions, her voice at times sounded like a spiritual possession, at others like a public exorcism of her own demons, and Smith sang through multiple characters or narrated their stories omnisciently.
During “Elegie,” Smith allowed to audience to chant back the names of loved one they lost -- “the people we keep alive in our memory,” as she said -- creating a space of collective mourning together as she chanted the names of of Morrison and Hendrix, Janis Joplin, each member of The Ramones, and David Bowie and Prince.
After completing her Horses set, Smith moved on to some of the most overtly polemical songs from later in her career, some of which sounded so timeless yet so necessary in the country’s current political climate that it made you wonder how much has really progressed socially since the ‘70s.
Smith spoke directly to the current immigration ban with her 1979 song “Citizen Ship,” singing from the longing perspective of a refugee: “Cut the chord. Overboard. Just a refugee/ Lady liberty, lend a hand to me, I've been cast adrift.” And her 1988 call to action “People Have The Power” reminded the audience that their voices can bring about social change as she sang, “We can turn the world around/ We can turn the earth's revolution.”
Smith ended the night with The Who’s “My Generation,” but not before making her discontent with our current president clear: “Donald Trump is 70-years-old, but so am I. We will not behave.” Intertwining the personal and the political, Smith battered her guitar strings, raised her instrument, and shouted, “This is the greatest weapon of my generation.” More than forty years later, Horses continues to inspire us to rebel and take to the streets to demand real change, creating a place for outsiders everywhere.
Break it Up
When Doves Cry
Because The Night
People Have The Power