Artists-On-Albums: AOA#22 (Antietam’s Tara Key on Horses)

Antietam’s Tara Key on…

Patti Smith’s Horses (Arista Records, 1975)

Patti Smith - Horses

NOVEMBER 1975 – “There’s a little place. A place called space.”

All was inertia. Restriction. Being encased. Smothered. Grounded. Of course it was easy to feel that way, wearing, first, the body cast that fit from my hipbones to my chin with only arms left to swing free, and now, a Milwaukee brace like Deenie in the Judy Blume scoliosis book.

My escalator was stuck in these Gerald Ford monochrome days. I felt like a mouse trying to high step my way out of a glue trap. I had spent summer 1974 at art school in New York and I got boomeranged back to Louisville – a city that, then, seemed just big enough to conjure notions of potential and just small enough to squash them.

I sat waiting for a signal in a prolonged sulk one November night, hopped up in the bedroom that I had painted black to mirror my discontent. I was listening to WLRS-FM, an album rock station that usually did nothing to improve my equation, feeding the airwaves a stultifying diet of “Lonely People,” “Best Of My Love,” “Stairway to Heaven” – the types of songs that, when they started, made me feel like I’d just gotten on an airless Greyhound bus in July for a nine-hour trip. But they did play, once a week, buried at 1am, a new album release in its entirety.

I heard it on the radio. Six years old, under the covers late with WWL New Orleans, WLS Chicago, KDKA Philadelphia, KMOX St. Louis: 50,000 watts of night sounds. Songs fading from one city into another. Crackly, wavering, sometimes flanged by distance, sending a message of possibilities. Early on I knew there’s somewhere not here.

The radio would save me again. It being Patti, it seems apt that the message would come in megahertz.

Despite reading Rock Scene regularly because of All Things Bowie, I cannot explain why I did not know who she was. But Horses came on with little introduction, she started singing and I literally froze. I can’t really remember any other time that a piece of music actually paralyzed me, like it was a call to prayer. I felt like I’d joined an army on the spot, even if I didn’t know who my comrades were yet.

Because somebody’s talking to me. It’s a girl like me. Incantation.  I remember saying “What the fuck is this?” out loud. I felt the three-chord garage. I heard the Seeds mutate.  Guitars explode and “Gloria G-L-O-R-I-A!” Damn!

Now wildly rapt, I was set up for “Birdland” third.

Listening today, I remember resolve leach into me via a sonic IV. How the room felt elastic. The walls didn’t come down but became mutable; negotiable. Guitars both trembling mandolin and moans and not like guitars at all — the scratches like seagulls, the mid-low feedback tones hit my gut, made me cry. The swell that is mixed to move around the head at about 7:15. Sohl walks with her on piano amidst the shards and clouds and Kral is the buoy and my tour guide gets taken up and the art is the act and I get taken up.

It’s not like I had never heard feedback before. I had every Pink Floyd record. But for me they created inner rooms, tunneling deep into selfish earth. This space was air, energy, being cherry-picked into the sky by a rescue helicopter. Terra firma yearning to marry outer space.

On side two, by the end of the song I was screaming “Break It Up!” Then, scrape into jaw harp into Chris Kenner and she is marking territory with stakes of words over words. “Land.” Up there. Everything else swims around her. Up there.

She was Everywoman but extraordinary. When I finally started making sounds they were bigger than me. Because she did, I thought I could sing rock and roll fist-like; smelted. And the icon on the cover would be what I modeled 2.5 years later at an audition for my first band; white shirt/black tie. I ended up splattered with blood from my hands.

Of course the next morning I stole into my mother’s closet, removed several Barber dimes, Liberty nickels and an Indian penny from my deceased uncle’s US coin collection, took the bus to the pawn shop and sold them.  Re-boarded the bus for Karma Records where I plunked down the coin turned back to currency and bought the record. “Free Money.” This theft was not detected for a decade.

JULY 9, 1976

I became a fan again. I remembered how good it felt to have heroes. Like the Mercury Seven. Patti celebrated her heroes. She was a fan too. We shared some of them. Ali was from Louisville; my mom and I listened on the radio to all his fights. I was already aping Rauschenberg. And Keith. Just prior to the Night of Horses, I pushed to the front of the stage for The Stones in Louisville. Keith’s sweat, a benediction, flew from his brow to mine as he wheeled into a solo.

I returned to New York Bicentennial week, July 1976, for the first time since 1974. My main mission was to see the Patti Smith Group at the Schaffer Music Festival in Central Park.

During the show, where I heard almost all of Radio Ethiopia a month before they recorded it, I made my way to the front of this stage too and threw a Moroccan scarf (like she and Keith wore) at her feet.

When I had arrived earlier at Central Park, I saw the Queen of England ride by in a carriage doing the queen wave. After the show, leaving Central Park, when Patti’s limo pulled up, Lisa Robinson (who I recognized from Rock Scene) got in, then Patti with her mom!

As a good girl gone sort of bad I was blown away. She loved her mom yet she did things that her mom probably wouldn’t approve of. That was huge, helping me fold a lot of warring factions into Team Tara. Patti was contradictory; messy, like me. And somehow, the scraps of pop that wove through her songs validated my Monkees side even as it collided with an impulse to go down some darker stairways I was perched at the top of.

As a fan, I never wanted to hang out with my heroes. I wanted to be them. I wanted to go into space, not watch the launch. I wanted to sing the songs, not just know the words by heart. But none of this would have been in my sea of possibilities unless she had unstuck me in space AND told me I was OK.

Notes On The Artist:

Tara Key

A former Louisville punk export turned New York underground veteran, Tara Key has dug out a deep and diverse career over the last three and a bit decades.  After cutting her teeth with the Babylon Dance Band between 1978 and 1983, Key’s main musical home since 1984 has been with the shapeshifting Antietam, across eight studio albums.

In-between times, Key has released two sublime solo LPs – 1993’s Bourbon County and 1995’s Ear And Echo and loaned her considerable talents to Yo La Tengo, Eleventh Dream Day and Retsin.  Key’s collaborative openness has also led to two instrumental albums with Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo, in the form of 2000’s mesmeric Dark Edson Tiger and this year’s delightful Double Star.

Antietam’s new album, Tenth Life, is freshly available on Chicago’s Carrot Top Records.

Listen to Antietam’s “Numbered Days” (from Tenth Life) at Soundcloud.