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“the ritual of horses”

Posted on 02 December 2005 by Caryn Rose (1)

Patti Smith
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 November/1 December 2005

That’s what she called it on Wednesday, thanking us for sharing it with her and the band. “The ritual of Horses.” And it was ritual, it was celebration of the highest order, she was the shaman, invoking energy, casting it out to us, and receiving it, the audience sent it back.

I think a lot about the role of ritual in rock and roll, what others find tired or cliched I often take power and comfort from. But I don’t remember the original ritual for these songs; I remember being so overwhelmed, emotionally and physically, that I couldn’t speak. Even if I could have spoken, the 15-year-old girl did not have the vision or the vocabulary to articulate what she was feeling in any adequate measure. It felt big and deep and enormous and joyful and frightening, rollercoastering from one extreme to the next or usually several at the same time.

The most important part of the ritual over the last two nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was simply the performance of Those Songs, in order, as true and powerful as they could possibly be. It is easy for an artist to infuse new material with spirit and energy; the challenge is to do so with the songs you have played hundreds of times. Of course, this was different; it was tribute and celebration, of the music and the people who made it and were around it, the ones who are still here and the ones who are no longer on the planet.

Now, I know Horses. I know it by heart and sometimes by rote and it is a record I never stopped listening to. I know Horses the way some people know the Beatles, it is that much of a given in my life, it is part of the fabric of my existence. Yes, it is THAT BIG. So given all of this, the fact that I know it so well, I expected to attend one of these shows in honor and enjoyment, and that that would be more than enough.


From the opening notes of “Gloria”–knowing what was coming and hearing it in my head was a joyful thing, not a sad or tired thing, if that makes sense: I know this. It is mine. Ritual.–about 15 seconds in, as she reached

my sins my own
they belong to me, me

And Jay Dee crashes the cymbals with her declarations of “me, me”… the hair on my arms stood up and I realized that something was about to happen to me, and all I could do was hang on and enjoy the ride.

Again, I know these songs. I know them. They know me. I could draw a timeline of my life and show you where they fit in, where I first heard them, when I first understood them, when they took special meaning, when they hurt so much to hear I had to push them away for a little while. They are old friends and compatriots and lovers. Their familiarity feels like my old engineer boots on my feet, so worn in and shaped to my feet that I can forget I have them on, they are part of me, the creases and the scuffs and the wear and the scratch on the left outside heel that I got riding on the back of a motorcycle. My point is: something this familiar and this close to you should not, by rights, affect you so strongly, so deeply, so fucking HARD. But they did. They sucker punched me right in the gut.

The first night I sat in the back of the orchestra, and felt confined and couldn’t dance and it wasn’t nearly loud enough. Night two (and I wasn’t going, I found a ticket from one of the faithful during the intermission on night one) I am perched up in the front row of the mezzanine and it was perfect and beautiful and also so reminiscent of the first time I saw her, similarly ensconced in the mezzanine of the Palladium. There was more than a little deja vu as a result.

“Gloria” is triumph; it couldn’t be anything but. “Redondo Beach” sung preening and proud, Flea (Flea! What a perfect choice for a bass player, given that Tony Shanahan had to be on keyboards the entire time) working the reggae beat back and forth with Lenny, who is clearly digging it. Audible intake of breath as “Birdland” begins and it is motherfucking otherworldly night one, night two her reading has the entire audience on its feet as the song closes. “Free Money” ends: “Side two!” Patti Lee announces with a smile.

Side two. “Kimberly,” into a reading/poem that was the genesis for — “Break It Up”.

Break it up, I can feel it breaking
I can feel it breaking, I can feel it brea

I am on my feet at this point, it is physically painful to be sitting down, not because the seats are uncomfortable but because the experience is so visceral, I want to be a participant, not simply a spectator.

Another intake of breath, I know what’s next. Sit down. I hold onto the arms of my seat.

The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating

Lenny begins the rhythm, eagle eye on her, another ritual, Lenny is her navigator and the intuition and sixth sense is a beautiful thing to witness, always has been.

“Land.” Especially “Land,” which was always something other and astonishingly continues to be something other, over these two nights it becomes a parable of children lost and our planet destroyed. The audience on the edge until the chant begins:

Horses horses horses horses horses horses

Both nights, it delights me that this is when the riot begins. Okay, perhaps not a riot, but this is the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and we are sitting in nice plush seats and suddenly little girls are rushing the front in groups and bigger girls are brazenly standing in their seats with reckless disregard for anyone sitting behind them, LET THEM STAND UP! “Come on!” Patti exhorts, and then the rest of the house is finally on its feet, permission given.

Do you know how to pony?

Yes, we do. And we always have done, even when we think we have forgotten who and what we are, “Land” can bring you back, “Land” brings everyone to their feet, spilling into the aisles, dancing, arms aloft, pandemonium that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1978, careening back into the song, closing with “Gloria,” as always, singing it to her and with her.

And it was here, both nights, that I finally shed tears. Night one it felt like shattering through glass, night two surrender and relief and joy.

“Elegie,” always sweet and beautiful, closes it off, finally, and they go off for a break to come back and play a handful of standards, familiars, beautifully executed, with love and energy; it isn’t the same as what just transpired but then again, it’s not supposed to be.

Listening to a series of songs that together compose an album 25 years later is not supposed to utterly dissolve you again. It should reinforce or exhort or remind, it should not make you homesick when you are already home, it should not still be giving you goosebumps and make your heart roar in its chest.

It should not, but it did.

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One Response to ““the ritual of horses””

  1. Rob in Victoria says:

    You rule, CLR. I got goose-bumps just reading this.