Song of the Week Revisited – Break It Up, Patti Smith

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I originally wrote this post in May 2008. I decided to repost it because it refers to a concert I saw 40 years ago today. It brings back great memories.

PattiSmithHorsesI was a DJ at Boston College’s radio station, WZBC, when Patti Smith’s album Horses was released on November 8th, 1975. I remember seeing the record in the “new releases” bin and being immediately drawn to it. Who was the androgynous woman in the black & white photo on the cover, wearing suspenders, with her coat hanging defiantly over her shoulder? (Of course at the time I wouldn’t have recognized the name of her photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, even if it had been pointed out to me.)

I listened to that album, and listened again. I’m still listening to it and get a rush every time I hear it, though I acknowledge it is one of those love it or hate it records.

302590_2382373359995_6379699_nA few weeks later I was back home for Christmas break in Newburgh, NY and learned that Patti would be playing the Red Rail, a small club in Nanuet, NY. A few buddies and I made a white knuckled drive the 40 miles to Nanuet in a massive blizzard. My parents were pissed that I insisted on risking the drive through that terrible storm.

The concert was unbelievable. Patti was in rare form, improvising her beat poetry to the three chord garage punk of her backing band. She was high as a kite and kept complaining that “some dude poured orange juice in my hair backstage.” This YouTube video from 1976 will give you an idea of what it was like to see her that night:

This week’s song is “Break It Up” from that debut record.

It was co written by Tom Verlaine of Television and was supposedly inspired by a dream about visiting Jim Morrison’s grave. It starts with a gentle piano intro. When Verlaine’s guitar comes in at the chorus, it sounds like a ghost haunting a cemetery. I’ve always loved the effect on Patti’s voice when she literally beats her chest during the lyric:

Ice, it was shining.
I could feel my heart, it was melting.

This is emotional stuff. Patti sings as if possessed, her words finding their own rhythm within the steady beat of the music. By the end her wailing sounds like she’s speaking in tongues at a Pentecostal revival. The piano pounds away with the guitars and keeps building all the way through the fade.

I hope you enjoy getting reacquainted with this song as much as I have.

Until next week…
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One thought on “Song of the Week Revisited – Break It Up, Patti Smith

  1. This is great Tom. I got to see Television at the Fillmore over the summer, and then last week, as noted, saw Patti and the band touring behind 40 years of “Horses” playing the album much like she did when it was new.

    There were some asides–like after finishing side one, Patti mimicked flipping the record on a turntable and dropping the tone arm down–but, it was just great.

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