Cultural critic Antonio Gramsci uses the term "organic intellectual" to describe people who "direct the ideas and aspirations of their class even though they hold no formal status or employment as 'intellectuals.’”
Rock singer Patti Smith embodies this notion.
Smith arrived on the rock scene with a bang — her 1975 debut Horses
established her as a forerunner of the punk generation and helped introduce the world to the New York underground scene that centered on the East Village club CBGB.
Forty years on, Horses
still resonates. In November of 2015, the band played the album in its entirety at Electric Lady Studios in New York where it was recorded. Since then, Smith has toured in support of its anniversary, playing Horses
in its entirety with original band members Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) and Lenny Kaye (guitar) by her side.
She took a hiatus from touring in 2016 when Daugherty was treated for cancer. Since he’s fully recovered, she’s decided to bring the tour to the Midwest for the first time. She performs at 8 p.m. on Sunday at the State Theatre.
“Cleveland was one of our big cities,” she explain via phone from her New York office. “Our first single, ‘Gloria,’ has a [cover of] ‘My Generation’ that was recorded live in Cleveland. It was one of those unforgettable concerts. It was really raucous. That stayed in my memory. Each city has a special meaning because I have a specific memory of the city at that time. At the Cleveland show, [Velvet Underground’s] John Cale was playing with us and it was really, really quite a raucous night. I think it’s the night where I said, ‘We created it; let’s take it over.’ It became our mantra. It’s the idea that rock was created as a revolutionary expression.”
As Smith explains, Horses
distills many of her influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison to Janis Joplin and the art punk band Television. Album opener, a cover of Them’s “Gloria,” features Smith’s howling vocals and adapts the ‘60s song for the ‘70s generation, turning it into a visceral expression of unbridled desire.
“When we started working in the early ’70s, we didn’t want rock to be some business and some corporate thing devoid of revolution and political energy,” she explains. “I was born in 1946 and was privileged to watch rock ‘n’ roll completely evolve. When I was a little girl and heard Little Richard sing, it was exciting. It evolved more and more poetically and politically. In the late ’60s and early ’70s so many things happened. Jimi Hendrix died. Janis Joplin died. Brian Jones died. Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident. The political landscape was changing. Yes, there were people speaking out like Neil Young, but we lost a lot of people like Jim Morrison. There was a shift in who our chief spokesperson were. It was a cultural vocabulary that was being built by these people and then many of them died. Stadium rock and disco and various things—and I’m not putting those things down—were happening. My people were trying to forge a new bridge between the people we had lost and learned from and the future.”
Smith says she hasn’t performed Horses
in the wake of a presidential election that has put members of the far right in positions of power. She says she’s not sure what to expect from the concerts but admits that “our concerts always resonate some political concern whether it is Standing Rock or the election itself or our environment.”
“We do the album intact exactly as it’s sequenced on the record, but because of the way it was structured, there is room for improvisation in [the song] ‘Land’ because it was improvised in the studio," she says. "I keep the structure but allow [the song’s character] Johnny to explore what is happening in the present. Every night is different. It reflects the city we’re in, the current climate and the energy of the people. These are our first post-election Horses
performances, so I don’t know. I have done some performances since and things come into play, so we’ll have to see what happens. I’m looking forward to it."
Smith, who describes herself as a “natural performer” who works on intuition, admits the album's cover art, a photo that the late Robert Mapplethorpe took, helped establish her as a punk poet of some stature.
“You know, when you first begin, everything, at least for us, was very innocent,” she says. “I recorded Horses
for I thought a very marginalized group of people because of their gender or sexual identity or politics. I was hoping it would communicate to a certain number of people. I felt like they didn’t have a whole lot of people speaking to them. That was my goal. In terms of the cover, Robert [Mapplethorpe] was the artist of my life. I wanted him to shoot it. He had his aesthetic, and I left it up to him. In terms of how I was dressed, that’s how I dressed. I wasn’t in costume. That’s what I wore on the street and on the stage. I wanted, in terms of how I presented myself, a mixture of the writer and poet — Baudelaire would wear black ribbons and white shirts. I was trying to encompass rock ‘n’ roll and also poetry.”
She says she didn’t know how the photo would appeal or not appeal to the general public. She did know her record label didn’t approve.
“The record company hated the picture,” she says. “They hated that my hair was messy and that my shirt was ripped, but I had creative control over what I did. They let me have the picture, but it wasn’t well received. It wasn’t a calculated gesture. It was just what I looked like. Robert took it beautifully. It drew a lot of people to that album. [R.E.M. singer] Michael Stipe saw the record and was drawn to the record, and he bought it. He was a teenager. He listened to it over and over, and he said it moved him to want to have a band. The picture taken as an artistic expression between Robert and I resonated with people and drew people to the album.”
She says she still dresses the same way.
“My daughter looks at pictures of me and says, ‘Mommy, you’re the same person,’” she says. “I’m gray. But I know who she is. I can look at that picture and, yes, I’m 70 years old and it was 40 years ago, but I still understand who she is.”
Patti Smith and Her Band Play Horses, 8 p.m. Sunday, March 12, State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. Tickets: $29.50-$59.50, playhousesquare.org.