Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe: Collage as Punk Rock

The Patti Smith Group’s debut lp Horses is considered to be among the most influential of early New York punk, although the best of the album displays a lyric sophistication and aggressive expressive freedom that was rarely matched by many of her early 1970s contemporaries. In particular the poetic technique she displays when combined with a popular music as collage style makes the seemingly primitive rock and roll expression potentially devastating in its delivery.


The not quite a title track “Land” (labeled “Horses by many) displays this collage quality merging with a DIY pop art aesthetic that was the default medium for Smith and her most significant other at the time, artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As Smith describes in her book Just Kids, when already struggling for food, housing, and at times survival, the materials for artistic expression for both Smith and notably Mapplethorpe came  in the form of collections of inexpensive or found materials (and the occasionally purchased men’s magazine) which were combined in installations, collages, paintings, photographs, jewelry, and various objects that transmitted complex, stirring, and unapologetic expressions from a highly original yet often ordinary collection of material. Smith adopts elements of this approach in the content and production of the song “Land” aka “Horses.”


Smith takes William S. Burroughs novel “The Wild Boys”, which would have come out during the same period the couple was living at the Chelsea Hotel and West 23rd street, as the pretext for her character Johnny, in the book part of a homosexual youth movement whose objective is the downfall of western civilization, set in the late twentieth century. Here Patti takes the themes of homosexuality, image, control, violence, and the hallucinogenic quality of deadpan spoken delivery that splits into a multi-tracked vocal over droning guitar. Adding to this mix of imagery and effect is Smith’s persistent and often jarring accent that unusually punctuates words such as “tea” and “mirror.” The juxtaposition of Johnny’s laughter accentuates the end of the second system:

The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run
But the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees
Started crashing his head against the locker
Started crashing his head against the locker
Started laughing hysterically

Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality had an obvious effect on his relationship with Smith, and his creative fascination with the world of sadomasochism would soon become the dominant theme in much of his work. Reconstituting risqué and at times harsh imagery became the norm, with no regard to creative boundaries about what was proper or fashionable to use to create art. Smith similarly adopts this mindset, saying of “Gloria” (the companion piece to Horses”:

“Gloria gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and disclaim our musical and spiritual heritage. It personifies for me, within its adolescent conceit, what I hold sacred as an artist. The right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.”

The layers of vocals in the opening was a result of multiple takes, and succeeds in merging Smith’s well honed talent for poetry reading and merges it with a production technique that symbolizes both the transformation of Johnny and the psychological impact of the story being told. The droning quality also has a NYC punk connection to the Velvet Underground and their successful integration of the technique some years earlier.

The most obvious image in the song’s collage is that of a stampede of horses that surrounds Johnny following is sexual violation in the hallway. Both a symbol of violence, freedom, and the loss of control that is taking over as a principle theme of the song. “Horse” is also slang for heroin, a staple subject in Burroughs and is offered perhaps in a manner that asks whether the sexual control is a metaphor for drug abuse, or vice versa. Smith herself had very limited interest in drugs during the period, showing her ability (unlike Burroughs) to adapt the condition to her literary ends without extensive first-hand knowledge.

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by
Horses, horses, horses, horses
Coming in in all directions
White shining silver studs with their nose in flames
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.

Almost as an homage to one of Burroughs’s cut up techniques the song transitions to what seems to be a primitive reading of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” but quickly evolves as the list of dances elicits the twist, in the form of the “twister I gave your baby sister…I want your baby sister” as the lyric loses the control necessary to maintain its own metaphor:

Do you know how to pony like bony maroney
Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this
Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator
And you twist the twister like your baby sister
I want your baby sister, give me your baby sister, dig your baby sister
Rise up on her knees, do the sweet pea, do the sweet pee pee
Roll down on her back, got to lose control, got to lose control
Got to lose control and then you take control
Then you’re rolled down on your back and you like it like that
Like it like that, like it like that, like it like that
Then you do the watusi, yeah do the watusi

Religion being another theme that runs though the album, especially the infamous firs line to “Gloria”, Smith combines angelic imagery with sex, death, and the taunts of what could pass for one of the pioneering early 1970s lower east side drag queen described in the book. The knives Burroughs features in the story make an appearance, with the phallic and violent overtones alluded to earlier before quick nods to Smith’s largest poetic influence Rimbaud and the child-like alliteration of the repeated “watusi.”

Life is filled with holes, Johnny’s laying there, his sperm coffin
Angel looks down at him and says, “Oh, pretty boy
Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?”
Johnny gets up, takes off his leather jacket
Taped to his chest there’s the answer
You got pen knives and jack knives and
Switchblades preferred, switchblades preferred
Then he cries, then he screams, saying
Life is full of pain, I’m cruisin’ through my brain

And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud

Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,

And go Johnny go, and do the watusi, oh do the watusi

Here Smith mixes her poetic devise, hovering over some repeated rhymes and phrases that don’t advance the narrative explicitly except in a kinesthetic modality of the momentary dip in the musical dynamic accompaniment. The idea of the twist as a dance has been transformed into a fictional band named the “Twistelettes.” The sexuality of the “you like it like that” once again highlights the stanza.

There’s a little place, a place called space
It’s a pretty little place, it’s across the tracks
Across the tracks and the name of the place is you like it like that
You like it like that, you like it like that, you like it like that
And the name of the band is the
Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes
Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes

Another shift in perspective takes place as the third and first person begin to overlap. Smith puts herself in with the horses, now benign, and offering a surreal stairway up to the sea as symbolic of possibility. This first possibility that is seized again becomes sexual in nature as Johnny reappears. Again the double track vocal returns adding to the dreamlike imagery:

Baby calm down, better calm down
In the night, in the eye of the forest
There’s a mare black and shining with yellow hair
I put my fingers through her silken hair and found a stair
I didn’t waste time, I just walked right up and saw that
Up there — there is a sea
Up there — there is a sea
Up there — there is a sea
The sea’s the possibility
There is no land but the land
(up there is just a sea of possibilities)
There is no sea but the sea
(up there is a wall of possibilities)
There is no keeper but the key
(up there there are several walls of possibilities)
Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities
(up there)
I seize the first possibility, is the sea around me
I was standing there with my legs spread like a sailor
(in a sea of possibilities) I felt his hand on my knee
(on the screen)
And I looked at Johnny and handed him a branch of cold flame
(in the heart of man)
The waves were coming in like Arabian stallions
Gradually lapping into sea horses

The imagery again becomes dominated by images of violence, male sexuality, control, Rimbaud, and the watusi, each crammed up against one another in a poetic and musical whirling dervish, punctuated by the line “that’s how I died”. Other drug references arise in the form of spoons and veins. The humor of Smiths writing offers momentary contrast in lines like “…oh we had such a brainiac-amour …but no more.” Smith seems to merge with Johnny as if he is one of the horses being ridden through the dream:

He picked up the blade and he pressed it against his smooth throat
(the spoon)
And let it deep in
(the veins)
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening in my hand
And I felt the arrows of desire
I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
And go Johnny go and do the watusi
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi …
Shined open coiled snakes white and shiny twirling and encircling
Our lives are now entwined, we will fall yes we’re together twining
Your nerves, your mane of the black shining horse
And my fingers all entwined through the air
I could feel it, it was the hair going through my fingers
(I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it)
The hairs were like wires going through my body
I I that’s how I
That’s how I
I died
(at that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after)
(they knew what they were after)
[Everything on the current] moved up
I tried to stop it, but it was too warm, too unbelievably smooth
Like playing in the sea, in the sea of possibility, the possibility
Was a blade, a shiny blade, I hold the key to the sea of possibilities
There’s no land but the land

As Smith returns to speaking, the image of death, blood, suicide, drugs (The scream he made… was so high, horses, and an array of body parts as the guitars dissolve into a percussive drone that supports the dreamy recitation. The music disintegrates with the characters as reference is made to a line from “Gloria” about an object of sexual desire leaning on a parking meter:

Looked at my hands, and there’s a red stream
That went streaming through the sands like fingers
Like arteries, like fingers
(how much fits between the eyes of a horse?)
He lay, pressing it against his throat (your eyes)
He opened his throat (your eyes)
His vocal chords started shooting like (of a horse) mad pituitary glands
The scream he made (and my heart) was so high (my heart) pitched that nobody heard
No one heard that cry
No one heard (Johnny) the butterfly flapping in his throat
(His fingers)
Nobody heard, he was on that bed, it was like a sea of jelly
And so he seized the first
(his vocal chords shot up)
(like mad pituitary glands)
It was a black tube, he felt himself disintegrate
(there is nothing happening at all)
And go inside the black tube, so when he looked out into the steep
Saw this sweet young thing (Fender one)
Humping on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter

The seemingly odd inclusion of “Land of a Thousand Dances” is revealed in the last image of the man in the sheets dancing to the simple rock & roll song, forming a bookend with the opening boy in the hallway, drinking tea.  Was this a drug induced halluciantion? A time warp? A mind bending sexual encounter? All of the above?  The imagery is all that is real, and like an effective collage emparts meaning without the need for explicit resolutions.

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock & roll

It is easy to draw comparisons from Smith’s poetry and lyric writing of the time to Mapplethorpe, not in terms of medium, message, or intent, but to the degree they used a no-holds-barred attitude toward subject matter and effectiveness at colliding various subjects and imagery in non-traditional ways. To this end, Smith is unmatched in this style during this period.

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