30 January 2016

Horses Or Bikes, She Is A Real Freedom Rider

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, last month marked forty years since the release of Patti Smith’s album Horses

I was a senior in high school then.  It semed that my classmates fell into one of three categories:  the ones who loved it and didn’t want it to end, the ones who were looking forward to college or whatever else they were going to do after graduation, and those who just couldn’t wait to get out.

Those of us in the third category were, in one way or another, the class “geeks”.  Most of us were bookish; nearly all of us had some interest or talent that wasn’t fashionable in that high school where the unofficial motto seemed to be, “If you can’t f*ck it, smoke it or drive it and it ain’t Led Zep’, it ain’t worth it.”  More than a few of us read and/or wrote poetry or songs we would perform only for very close friends (who, naturally, were as introverted as we were); we loved poets like Patti who, we felt, told the truth—at least as we understood it at the time.

I had been writing stories, articles for the school newspaper and stuff I can’t categorize—most of which I lost or destroyed along the way from then to now.  Around that time, I started writing what some might call “free verse” poetry, or simply chopped-up sentences.  Whether or not it was “any good” (Let’s face it, how much of anything that we do at that age is?) is, I realize now, not the point, any more than whether or not I had the capability of becoming a world-class racer did or didn’t make the amount of cycling I was doing “worth it”.  Yes, I wrote and rode—as I do now—because I enjoyed those activities.  But more important, I could not envision life without them.

Actually, that’s not quite right.  I did those things, not only for pleasure, but also for survival.  And, in those days, the work of a poet like Patti Smith or Gregory Corso or Arthur Rimbaud was sustenance for “the journey”, whatever that might be.

I think what I really loved and admired about Patti Smith, though, was something I couldn’t articulate at the time, or for a long time afterward.  Now I’ll express it as best I can:  She did something interesting and unique, whatever its flaws (which I only vaguely understood at the time) and did it on her own terms.  At a time when I still did not have the terms or tools to articulate, let alone embody, the “differentness” I saw in myself—which others, especially the adults in my life, misunderstood as “rebelliousness”—Patti Smith gave us an image of how someone can become someone only he or she can become. 

When Horses came out, she was often described as “androgynous” because of the way she was dressed, and the way she carried herself, in the photo on the album’s cover.  The truth, I realized even then, was that she was actually showing that it was possible to be a woman in a way that didn’t fit into the boxes constructed by the governing institutions and individuals of our society.

She upset those authority figures in much the same way as the women who abandoned their corsets and hoopskirts for shorter skirts or “bloomers” so they could ride bicycles in the 1890’s. Most of those women weren’t consciously rebelling; they simply to wanted to live their lives as they saw fit.    

It might take a long time but, ultimately, independent spirits who realize their visions change the world and inspire us while those who try to suppress such spirits or the change they engender are forgotten or even vilified.  Most people, at least in the industrialized countries, think nothing of women wearing pants or skirts that don’t constrict their movement, and of working in what were once considered in “men’s” jobs.

Or of writing a line like, “Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

Knowing what I’ve just said, are you surprised to see this image of Patti Smith?:


  1. Are you surprised when I say that I still play those original LPs with great delight, the CD transfers have an undefinably horrible quality and sometimes pointless bonus tracks!

    She gave me courage to live that androgynous look for over three decades before I found the way to finally move on. I sometimes feel bad about shearing off that long hair which I had from before leaving school at the end of the sixties. If I had put aside the money I had saved not going to hairdressers over those decades I could get me a bike like that! Not often you see a "priests framed" bike. Chocolate easter eggs been in shops for a month, soon be Easter...

  2. Nice article. Thanks. That was a real groundbreaking album. I'm sure you must have read Smith's memoir, "Just Kids" about her long relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. If you haven't, you must. It's a wonderful story, and beautifully written.

  3. Coline--Sometimes I think the worst thing I ever did was to let go of my LPs when my last turntable died. I understand that new turntables are being made, but I think now that perhaps someone could have fixed my old one. Most of my LPs were in ood shape!

    I think she's inspired us in so many ways.

    Brooks--Thank you. From a writer and blogger like you, that's a real compliment!

    I've read "Just Kids". It is indeed a great story, written as only she could tell it. She is to words and music what Mapplethorpe was to images. And their love for each other, as turbulent as it could be, transcended gender expression and sexual orientation.

  4. Justine. That book is lurking in the Kindle, must push it up the list to be read now that it has such a glowing review...

  5. After reading your post, I had to click on my itunes and give Horses a listen. Her version of Gloria is still my all-time favorite. And this is the first time I recall seeing her on a bike.

  6. Coline--Read it!

    MT-Isn't her version of Gloria amazing?