Garage Band Modernism

I’ve never cared for rock songs with lush orchestral arrangements, cellos and violins sugar-coating the three or four chords that make up the melody. Take the Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” for example, overwrought in every way, the lyrics lamenting unspecified dissatisfaction, the strings transporting the speaker’s melancholy to the suburbs of tragedy, Schmaltzville, where eyes mist over at the slightest sentimentality: puppy dogs, Grandmas, Eugene Fields’s bathetic “Little Boy Blue.”[1]

This is what I’m talking about:

snippet from “As Tears Go By”

Hey, crybaby singerboy, take a hint from Frederick Henry, read some Lucretius, grab an umbrella, and head to a pub.[2]

Compare “As Tears Go By” with this ditty from the same album, December’s Children.

snippet of “Get Off My Cloud”

Now, that’s more like it. 

And speaking of the Stones, man oh man, after the psychedelic silliness of Their Satanic Majesties Request, hearing the six successive opening G chords of “Honky Tonk Women” was like welcoming home a long-lost prodigal cousin returning deprogrammed from some sort of Scientology-like hypno-indoctrination. 

beginning of “Honky Tonk Women”

To quote that Big Mama Thornton of Modernist literature, Sweet Molly Bloom, “Yes!”  

Anyway, I really dig garage bands, Sam the Sham, ? & the Mysterians, the Kingsmen, the Human Beinz, etcetera.

Forgive my Western predilection to have to rank things. It’s sort of stupid really, but that said, in my not-all-that humble opinion, the greatest garage album of all time – and this may surprise you – is Patti Smith’s first release, Horses – a masterpiece whose subtitle could be “TS Eliot meets the Troggs.”

For example, here’s a snippet from the first song of the flipside, “Kimberly.”

snippet of Kimberly

You “Waste Land” junkies out there no doubt caught the echoic allusion to bats with baby faces and violet skies.

Horses is Modernist garage band, flashing with fragmented musical and literary allusions that imbue its songs with concentrated meaning and ultimately create a constellation of images revolving around alienation.

In other words, it’s a work of art.

The masterpiece cut of this masterpiece album is the 9:42 penultimate song “Land,” which, to my ear, has the greatest transition in all of rock-n-roll. Check it out. (The transition occurs at 1.11 minutes.)

the beginning of “Land”

The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway,
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by
horses, horses, horses, horses
coming in in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames,
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
Do you know how to pony like bony maroney
Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this
Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator

What follows is eight minutes of stream-of-consciousness as Johnny’s brain transitions from sentience to eternal silence.

Now that’s what I call transcending a sub-genre. It’s simultaneously raw and polished, gritty and eloquent, Rimbaud and Wicked Wilson Pickett playing pingpong backstage in a dance hall.


[1] I’m being unfair to the Stones, “As Tears Go By” isn’t nearly as bad as “Little Boy Blue.” 

[2] Here’s Henry describing leaving the corpse of his wife in A Farewell to Arms.

“But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while, I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

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