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Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Shaw Horses

I was particularly intrigued to read Philip Shaw’s 33 1/3 book on Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) because, like me, Shaw is an English Literature lecturer at a British university: he’s a specialist in Victorian poetry working at Leicester. The usual criticism levelled at literature specialists who take on popular music is that they focus on the lyrics and understand the music only as setting–something mentioned, for example, in at least one review  of Christopher Ricks’s Bob Dylan book.  Given that Patti Smith began in part as a poet, such an approach might be more excusable and more relevant than it would for bands where there lyrics are a pretext for a vocal performance; but not ideal. As it turns out, this book isn’t perfect, and the imperfections might have something to do with Shaw’s day job, but he does give a decent account of the music.

The track-by-track account of Horses is very much the end-point of the study. It was, of course, Smith’s first album, so much of the book is a patient and detailed account of how she developed her aesthetic in the years leading up to its recording.  Shaw frames his account with a sketch of his own first encounter with the record, one in which his teenage religious belief plays an important role; it complements Smith’s family background as a Jehovah’s Witness.  His opening chapter takes Smith’s performance at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery on 10 February 1971 as a pivotal moment: it allows Shaw to sketch the cultural context that Smith found herself in as she made her way in the New York music and arts scene.  It’s a really impressive and dramatic way of opening, made possible, as is much of the study, by a bootleg recording. Smith’s early career is as well documented as anyone might hope for.  Shaw ends by noting that the alliances and networks that Smith formed in her early years were crucial to her breakthrough: what he’s quietly aiming to do is qualify the idea that her success was the result of individual genius.

After this opening scene, Shaw backtracks chronologically to sketch how Smith came to find herself in St Mark’s in February 1971. We learn something of the influence of her father, mother, and sister, of the music she listened to, and of the working-class milieu in which Smith grew up.  Shaw is good at treating Smith’s self-mythologisation sceptically, while acknowledging the importance and value of such myth-making. However it’s in this chapter that one of the less successful (to my mind) strands of the book emerges, as Shaw tries to account for the power of music in terms of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the ‘semiotic’, a pre-linguistic babble that has strong associations with the maternal bond.  ‘Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!’, as they say on the Left Bank: it’s interesting to see the power of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ in these terms, but there’s an abrupt shift of discourse when Shaw does it, and the strand never feels fully integrated with the other materials.  I should say that my objection isn’t to psychoanalytic literary theory being used in relation to rock music; Shaw reflects very interestingly on the clash between the  kinds of visceral reactions we have to popular music and the cautious attitude to evaluation that characterises most academic engagement with literary artefacts. My problem is partly with the tendency of this kind of Kristevan reading to find the same thing wherever it goes, and that Shaw doesn’t allow himself space to think through the implications, or to make comparisons with other artists, in a way that would make the conclusions more nuanced and less generic. I wonder if what this appeal to theory stands for is the impossibility of finding a descriptive language to trace all the inspired things that Smith does with her voice and the inspired scratches and squeals that the guitarists produce, and the impossibility of finding a language that wouldn’t weigh down that inspiration with a clumsy pedantic heaviness.  But those inspired things aren’t the semiotic: they’re difficult to talk about, but they’re not beyond the symbolic order.

By the end of Chapter 2 we’ve reached the Spring of 1967, and Smith has moved to New York. Chapter Three takes us through the various alliances and explorations that Smith made in 1967-1972: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, the Chelsea Hotel, among others.  Shaw’s key texts are the poems Smith was writing at this time.  The Mapplethorpe connection is well known, but Smith’s period acting in Shepard’s work was news to me, and Shaw convincingly argues that it helped Smith become a compelling performer of her own work, inhabiting her songs and delivering contradictory feelings (p.57).

Chapter Four, covers the years 1973-1975 in which Smith moved from being a poet to being a singer and musician, and accordingly it’s in this chapter that Shaw begins to take music seriously as music. Smith secured a support slow for the New York Dolls, and Shaw is interesting on the ambivalent relation of the Dolls to the Rolling Stones, both ‘camp parody’ and an attempt to ‘rekindle the fire’ of 1960s rock.  He’s especially interesting on the influence of the film musical Cabaret (1972) in reviving the validity of cabaret song and Sprechstimme as a musical style: I can’t help wondering if there’s not a whole book to be written about Cabaret and 1970s rock music.  He’s also evocative about the way that in this period Smith learned to break with regular rhythm, both in her poetry and in her song performances:

Smith […] was allowing her voice to discover its own rhythm, choosing in the instant whether to slow down or increase the pace of a line, adding or deleting emphasis as required. But while this new voice was liberated, in formal terms, from the predictability of rock’n’roll, it was also, in its way, becoming more musical.  Partly through her interest in free jazz, and partly as a result of her ongoing fascination with torch song, Smith was learning how to measure a phrase, how to stretch or compress a syllable in order to convey a certain effect. (p.74)

Chapter Five brings us to 1975 and the recording of Horses in New York and a track-by-track analysis of the songs in their recorded versions.  Shaw is again convincing in his accounts of Smith’s vocal performances, and alive to her modulations of tone, but less detailed when it comes to the other instruments.  Here he is discussing part of ‘Gloria’:

In the space of a single line, for example, ‘I I walk in a room you know I look so proud’, the voice moves from an impassioned sobbing effect (‘I I walk’), to breathiness (‘in a room’), to hard and nasal (‘you know I look’), to clipped and cocksure (‘so proud’).  Further along, the sense of solitary defiance is emphasised by the casually slurred ‘I go to this here par-ty,’ the closed croaked effect of ‘bored.’ (p.104)

Shaw is more willing than some writers in this series to talk about the particular sequences of chords that are being played, and to speak about modulations; but very often his discussion of the music follows the discussion of the lyrics, and is less detailed, as if music were merely the setting for the lyrics and not a thrilling and energizing thing in itself.  One might argue this is appropriate to Horses, that what’s most original and distinctive about the album are the lyrics and the vocal performance, and that however brilliant the band were, they didn’t do anything that wasn’t implicit on the Velvet Underground’s studio albums; but they extrapolate certain elements from the Velvets, and are more various in their influences than that would make them sound.  And, listening to the album again, I wondered if there were even some things in Smith’s distinctive vocal mannerisms that Shaw hadn’t fully accounted for.

A short final chapter considers the reception of the album, though its chronological frame is restricted to 1975: listening to Horses again after reading the book I wished Shaw could have traced at least some of the lines of descent, influence and straightforward theft: I can’t help thinking that the Spacemen 3 borrowed a few chords from Gloria, and more importantly the spacious relaxed vibe of the opening; and more obviously, James’s Village Fire EP and their first album, produced by Lenny Kaye, owe a lot to Patti Smith.  I can see that such a task would be very open-ended, and frustrating because there would always be some line of influence that went unnoticed, some stray dandelion seed that landed on the other side of the fence; but it would make a more persuasive case for the importance of the album.