Patti Smith: Horses
This is the second in our series of five seminal album covers by female artists
A lot of us have wanted to put Bono in his place from time to time. On the weekend I was reading a disturbing feature story on Bono, depicting him walking through Washington’s corridors of power, seemingly without the need for security clearance; every door on both sides of politics open to him. Fawning politicians lined up to tell the reporter that “you couldn’t say no to Bono”. Bono – who so happily mistakes record buyers for constituents and hates poverty as much as he does taxes – was depicted as half-saint, half-pop star.
So you would it would think it would have come as some honour when in 1997 Bono introduced Smith at a music magazine award ceremony as a “sister, lover, and mother”. Instead, accepting the award she said: “I’m not your mother, Bono. Do your own dirty work. Fuck you.” She later told NME that she found the statement “presumptuous”.
I recycle this minor controversy because this formidable attitude is embodied by the cover of Smith’s 1975 debut Horses. It’s an album that contains the unforgettable opening gambit: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” and forever cemented her reputation as the godmother of punk.
A keen proponent of independent theatre and performance poetry, she moved to New York in the late 60’s. Shortly afterwards she met art student Robert Mapplethorpe and by 1970 they were sharing the smallest room in the legendary Chelsea Hotel.
“We used to stay up all night,” Mapplethorpe said, “and she would do her thing and I would do my thing, and then we’d take a break and smoke a cigarette and look at each other’s work.”
Mapplethorpe ended up making his mark as a photographer and I remember studying the controversy his work caused in university. By the 80’s his main theme was interracial homoeroticism, which naturally baited the “moral majority” so empowered by Reagen’s ascendancy.
(Why this shot wasn’t used as the sleeve for the 80’s hit Ebony and Ivory I’ll never know.) His confronting work inspired a heated debate about government funding for the arts, of which Mapplethorpe was a recipient.
But before all the furor, in 1975, he had only just acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and started taking photographs of his friends and acquaintances. In the case of this image, the same sense challenge to gender norms is present. The man’s suit and defensive posture work at contrast with the confidence of Smith’s gaze and the delicacy of her hands to create something new. This isn’t the glam, make-up wearing, cross-dressing androgyny that Bowie had popularised.
Taken with only natural light, the cover emphasises a stark reality. The record company tried to touch the photo up and remove Smith’s hairy upper lip but she wasn’t having it.
There’s also an electric sense that this was the last moment of quiet before both Mapplethorpe and Smith lost their anonymity. They would both see plenty more hotel rooms in their high-profile lives, but never the shared poverty, intimacy and inspiration of the Chelsea Hotel.
Mapplethorpe died of AIDS complications in 1989 (various prayer circles probably high-fived) and in 1996 Smith wrote a book called The Coral Sea dedicated to her dear friend.
Today she still continues to record, write poetry and tour. As Bono very graciously responded after her outburst in 1997, “she never let’s you down.”