It's not like the music world was completely unprepared for Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run and Patti Smith's Horses when both were released in the fall of 1975. Born To Run was Springsteen's third album, and though musically it had only a little in common with the sprawling boogie of Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, it was very much of a piece with those records' streetwise romantic vision. As for Smith, she was part of a young New York punk scene that had already produced The New York Dolls and was busy nurturing Television and The Ramones. In an era of arena-rockers and mega-stars, the early New York punks—the children of The Velvet Underground, primitive and poetic—acted like they'd never even heard of Yes and Pink Floyd. Springsteen ran alongside them, in spirit if not in sound.
Critics were still trying to determine what the enduring impact of the New York scene would be when Horses hit. Smith had worked as one of those critics herself, part of a choir of writers, including Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh, who pined for rock 'n' roll that could be "smart" without copping moves from classical music. Horses was Smith's most sublime piece of rock criticism, as energetic and self-aware as a work from French cinema's New Wave (a movement itself advanced by critics). Smith quoted Van Morrison and Wilson Pickett while getting under the skin of their songs, explicating their deeper meanings without losing their sexual thrust.
Horses opens with some head-clearing blasphemy. Smith moans, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," and then proceeds to replace Christianity with the doctrine of Them, explaining her faith in rock by adopting the persona of a man-on-the-make who gets the girl of his dreams and wants to tell the world about it in a song. The song is "Gloria": a new New Testament, dedicated to G-L-O-R-I-A, in excelsis deo. If "Gloria" had been the only song on Horses, the album would still be one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. After all the pompous attempts to elevate rock to the status of high art through elaborate stage shows and orchestral overtures, Smith took it to the academy by shrieking along to an old garage-rock single and showing that pop spirituality is all about a belief in feeling good.
The rest of the album, though frequently as brilliant, is kind of anti-climactic. After the ecstatic revelation of "Gloria," the pale reggae of "Redondo Beach" and the more rambling prophesy of "Birdland" sound like morning-after rehashes of a wild party. The 30th-anniversary edition of Horses contains a complete 2005 live performance of the album on a second disc, and the live versions of "Redondo Beach" and "Birdland" benefit from the more mature guitar-playing of Lenny Kaye and Tom Verlaine, who trade snaky riffs and find pleasure spots they didn't know how to hit as kids.
The persisting disappointment of Horses remains the three-part epic "Land," a homely sister to "Gloria" that would be more attractive if it just fixed itself up a little. On the latter-day live take, Smith seems to give up on the song, choosing to reprise "Gloria" to create the climax that the weaker track only hints at. But there's a more obvious solution. After breathlessly chanting about a boy's dream of horses and tying it to the R&B classic "Land Of A Thousand Dances," all Smith has to do to complete the thought—power equals sex equals pop—is build to the "na na-na na-na"s of Pickett's version. Instead, she humps away but skips the orgasm—so very punk.
Recognizing a fellow traveler, Bruce Springsteen loaned Smith his steaming-hot seduction song "Because The Night" for her big rock move, her 1978 album Easter. But even on Horses, both "Free Money" and "Break It Up" are very Springsteen-y in their piano settings and heavy climaxes. It's hard to imagine, given the way that one became a cult hero and one became a superstar, that Smith and Springsteen had much in common. But both were touted early in their careers by Clive Davis, and at the time of Horses and Born To Run, both were marginal artists noted for their transformative live shows and slangy lyrics about young lotharios on the street.
And both open their signature albums with allusions to other rockers: Horses' big wet kiss to Van Morrison and Born To Run's humble nod to Roy Orbison, whose "Only The Lonely" plays on the radio as teenage lovers blow town in "Thunder Road." Springsteen in concert made use of old songs and old styles, but on his first two albums, he strained to translate the sound into something that the music world of the early '70s could understand. He started out as "the new Dylan," with verbose, ungainly folk-rock songs, and then tried groove-oriented Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan-style adult rock. But the pretensions of the era never suited him. Hippies and post-hippies alike romanticized the distant past, wearing out-of-date clothes and learning to play jug-band music. Springsteen stuck by the disreputable Top 40 hits that meant so much to him as a kid growing up in small-town New Jersey.
While Smith maintained some intellectual remove, Springsteen approached his music with dead-on sincerity. He made believers of critics like Jon Landau (later Springsteen's manager and co-producer), who had begun to feel the passion for their favorite art form dying alongside the great social movements of the late '60s and early '70s. Springsteen allowed them to feel committed again, simply by playing music that was uplifting, easy to understand, genuinely rooted in the working class, and performed by a multi-ethnic, eager-to-entertain band. The 30th-anniversary edition of Born To Run includes a DVD of a 1975 live performance by Springsteen and his E Street Band that documents their showmanship and brio, all orchestrated by a tiny, scruffy, unassuming-looking guy who would became an evangelist when he approached a microphone.
But while other musicians talked about their live show as the ideal way to hear them, Springsteen—who had the best live show in rock—wanted to make great records, because he knew a kid in the middle of nowhere couldn't put a concert on his record player. (At least not in 1975.) A second DVD in the Born To Run anniversary set includes a making-of documentary filled with footage of Springsteen in the studio, looking like a thug savant and struggling to extract the ideal sound from his imagination. He says he knew he had some kind of gift but didn't know what it was, so for Born To Run he filled notebooks with potential lyrics and had The E Streeters do take after take, some of which he pieced together after the fact. (Clarence Clemons' sax solo in "Jungleland" was actually eight solos put on separate tracks and mixed together live by Springsteen.)
Landau came in to help Springsteen express himself, and then stuck around for the rest of Springsteen's career, gently nudging him toward more songs like Born To Run's "Night" and "She's The One," which are in line with the direct party rock of The River and Born In The U.S.A. In a way, Born To Run was a farewell to the epic song-constructions of his early albums—a one-time-only encapsulation of all that Springsteen had to offer before he settled into a repertoire of arena anthems and folk songs. Springsteen at his creative and commercial peak walked an artistic tightrope, since his art was validated only if it reached a mass audience. He could only explain the awesome power of rock by wielding that power.
That's the primary way that he and Smith differed. They were both like rock 'n' roll Quentin Tarantinos, drawing on an encyclopedic knowledge of pop and giving it a personal stamp that read "This is what it all means to me." But Smith wasn't as intent on inviting millions of people into her head. She printed up academic journals, not fan magazines. Springsteen was more invested in his packaging, because he wanted to pass along the full hope he heard on his transistor radio throughout adolescence. It's right there in the opening lines of "Thunder Road," when he feigns identification with "the lonely" while slyly assuming the mantle of a rock star. "Roy Orbison," Springsteen sings. "Hey, that's me."