What’s the best song ever written?

Obviously impossible to answer, but where’s the fun in that? The answer, therefore, is Patti Smith’s “Land” from the 1975 Horses album.

Patti Smith – Land

I fell to thinking about this on recalling when I was 16 or 17 and had first read a poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Vowels”, in which he imagines each letter as a colour and thence as an object. It starts like this:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
in anger or in the raptures of penitence;

I was seriously impressed. Back then I had a ring binder full of my own awful poems and I was also interested in making print art in which (so many years pre-Photoshop ago) I would cut and paste images together then make a photocopy to hide the join. I borrowed the manual typewriter my father had for his trade union work and made an image over which I simply typed the words of this poem. From memory, it was a sea scene background and gulls made some sort of appearance. Not sure why, but maybe it was triggered by the next line of the rest of the poem:

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
the peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
silences crossed by [Worlds and by Angels]:
–O the Omega! the violet ray of [His] Eyes!

My poetry was so bad, this one day I showed it to a friendly English college tutor and he suggested that maybe the photocopies were the thing to pursue. Damn his eyes.

Rimbaud had a short life (1854—1891). “Vowels” was written when he was 17 years old. That was the difference between us, alas. The other was that he died from cancer just after his 37th birthday.

The story goes that Patti Smith had a dead-end job in a factory and kept herself sane with a book of Rimbaud’s poetry she stole from a bookstore (not that hard to do, if it was anything like bookstores I went to in the 1970s).

She has often stated her admiration for Rimbaud. In fact, on another CD by Hector Zazou called “Sahara Blue” she has a song/poem about him with the lines “devotions. to Arthur Rimbaud. he was young. he was so damn young. he was so god damned.

“Land” isn’t about Rimbaud although he does get a name check in it (“go Rimbaud go“).

Nobody’s too sure what it is about. The full title of the song is actually “Land: Part I: “Horses”; Part II: “Land of a Thousand Dances”; Part III: “La Mer (De)” and the extra parts of the title help explain parts of it. There was a 1960s hit song “Land of a 1000 Dances” by Wilson Pickett which is the one that mentions all the dances like the mashed potato, the watusi, etc. That explains parts like:

(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
And go Johnny go and do the watusi,
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi …

The horses part is presumably what Johnny sees when he blocks out the bad experience of being assaulted (knifed?) in the school locker room by imagining:

The waves were coming in like Arabian stallions
Gradually lapping into sea horses
He picked up the blade and he pressed it against his smooth throat

The “la mer” bit is sometimes seen as a tribute to Debussy but it could just be a shortening (and translation) of the line “a sea of possibilities“. The land in the title is frequently juxtaposed with it’s opposite – the sea. Land is what binds us, the sea is the infinite possibility of our imagination.

If you hear the lines about “horses, horses, horses, horses / coming in in all directions / white shining silver studs with their nose in flames” and think of that brilliant Guinness ad with the building beat music by Leftfield (“Phat Planet”) over the image of white stallions coming in like waves on the sea – it’s no accident, the ad makers were directly influenced by Land.

Afterthoughts:
There’s a different, better translation and reading of Vowels here.
It’s worth looking at Patti Smith’s website.