The 33 1/3 Odyssey: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Rimbaud (But I Like It)

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the twelfth installment of one person’s quest to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 15 of 57: Horses by Philip Shaw (#55 in the series)

Horses, released in 1975, is Patti Smith‘s debut album. U.K. musician and University professor Philip Shaw traces not only the history and making of the songs on the album, but gives a sketch of Smith’s personal history as well; pretty crucial, as this is one of those records that isn’t simply a collection of great rock songs, but also very much about context. Horses brought elements of literature into rock in a way that few albums (and even fewer artists) had done before. After all, how many artists are as equally turned on by the poetry of William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud as they are by the greasy, gutbucket riffing of Keith Richards? Not many. At least, not many who manage to blend those influences into something altogether new and inspiring, as Patti Smith did with her debut.

Although Shaw is a songwriter and musician himself (here’s his band), this entry in the 33 1/3 series is very much the work of an academic, and his enthusiasm and admiration for Patti Smith is presented in the formal, critical style of such. Not mentioning that as a plus or a minus — just lettin’ you know. If you’ve read any of the many books out there on Patti Smith, you won’t find any newly unearthed details here, but Shaw’s insights are his own and well worth the read. If you haven’t read any of the Patti Smith bios (and that’s gonna be most folks) this would be a great place to start — after all, this is the album that introduced her to the world, and there’s plenty of background on Smith’s influences and her evolution as a poet and singer.

Note: in the section of the book that covers each track, Shaw ends his description of album closer “Elegie” by saying “Horses could not have a finer conclusion.” Spot on, so here’s a suggestion to those of you who pick this up on CD — when sitting down to listen to the album, skip “My Generation,” the bonus track now tacked on to the end. It’s nice that they added something extra when they remastered the thing in ’96, but experiencing the album the way Patti Smith intended it to be experienced can’t be beat.

The Patti Smith Group – Live and Subtitled

KEXP: “Horses, released by Arista records in November 1975, is the greatest rock album of all time: end of story.” Wow — this is the first 33 1/3 I’ve read about a rock album that went so far as to make that statement.

Philip Shaw: Well, I thought this claim would put the cat among the pigeons! Although I realised at the time of writing that it would provoke some strong reactions I decided not to edit it out. Why? I’m still not sure, but I think I was motivated, at least in part, out of a desire to stir things up a little. Academics like me inhabit a culture where value judgements are frowned on and critical timidity is the norm, yet I think that many people still get a kick out of debating this sort of question. The fact that in everyday life people enjoy evaluating art and that lists of the “greatest books/films/albums of all time” appear with increasing regularity, is of great interest to me. I suppose a cynic would say that this sort of activity helps to keep the culture industry in profit, but I should like to believe that consumers of culture have a genuine stake in their passions. When the opportunity to write for 33 1/3 was presented to me, I began by posing the question “so what, if push comes to shove, is my favourite album?” It didn’t take me long to come up with the answer and from thereon I set about trying to justify my choice. I wanted, in short, to try to understand why I felt so strongly about Horses. Do I believe that my claim is objectively true? No, of course not, no more than I believe that Mont Blanc is objectively the most sublime mountain in the world. Like all value judgements, my belief is simply an invitation to you, the reader, to engage in critical debate.

You talk about experiencing the album viscerally at first, before you became more familiar with Patti Smith’s literary influences and contemporaries. Do you ever now find it difficult to enjoy the album in that same way, after having become so immersed in it’s poetic context?

I wondered about this question when I began to research for the book: would my experience of pure, unalloyed pleasure be ruined if I subjected it to critical analysis? I can happily report that learning more about the record has only increased my appreciation. I happened on a recent performance of “Gloria” on a British music show the other night and, much to my relief, I could still felt the hairs rising on the back of neck when Smith sang the opening lines. This, for me, is proof enough that thinking and feeling need not be defined in opposition to each other. I also believe that a test of good art is its ability to withstand close critical scrutiny. Consider, for example, the seemingly endless flow of books and essays devoted to readings of Hamlet, the songs and lyrics of Bob Dylan, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock. A great record, like a great play, poem, or film, will always keep something of itself in reserve, enough to entice future commentators to produce further readings. And this claim takes me back, in a roundabout way, to the response I gave to your first question: if Horses is a great album (if not the greatest!) then a measure of its greatness will be the amount of commentary it generates over a certain period of time. To put it crudely, if people are still thinking about the record in fifty years time then it is probably is a wonderful thing. Let’s see.

This 33 1/3 is pretty unique in that it focuses, for obvious reasons, so much on Patti Smith as a lyricist and poet. Was there a worry that citing folks such as Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek would be straying too far, with regard to the rock fans who pick up the book?

I set out to write a book that would challenge two types of reader. On the one hand, I wanted to convince fellow academics that rock music was worth taking seriously. Patti Smith, like Dylan, is a good test case for this sort of endeavour – good insofar as her credentials as a lyricist and poet single her out as a ‘serious’ artist, the sort of figure that can be placed under the lens of literary, psychoanalytical or cultural critique. But what happens when we attempt to extend this critique to her identity as a rock performer? In posing this question I wanted to prompt both academics and rock fans (though they can be one and the same person!) to revaluate their assumptions about what counts as ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture. Can a rock song count as ‘high’ art in the same way that a poem does? And why should this distinction matter? Although I understand that Lacan and Žižek are not to everyone’s taste, I hope that my attempts to apply their ideas to Horses have encouraged both sets of readers to reconsider their assumptions about the nature and status of rock music.

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  1. Peter
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    Fantastic that you’re covering such a genius album here. The book sounds interesting, I’ll be checking into it next trip to the record and book shop.

  2. Posted May 21, 2008 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I just love Patti’s personality too, especially back in the “Horses” days. Her interview segments on the Tom Snyder Punk & New Wave DVD are rock and roll as conversation. Seriously messed up and cool, and her music backed it up. For personal emotional reasons I’ll always love her third album the best though, even if “Horses” is the most magnificent turning point of the 70s.

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