Monday, July 22, 2024

Patti Smith, alter girl

On my walls and shelves at home, I have a plank of wood from the house in Marlin where Blind Willie Johnson lived in the 1920s, the sole of a big shoe I found on Washington Phillips’ property in Simsboro, a frayed foot of red carpet from the Harris Chapel in Trinity, where the Soul Stirrers got their start, and a piece of concrete from the crumbling back steps of Mason Temple in Memphis, where Arizona Dranes performed in the 1930s. I collect the flotsam of Texas gospel pioneers in the long-shot hope that maybe a little of the spirituality will wash up on my shores.

But no musical souvenir has such near-religious importance to me as the disc of black plastic that starts off “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” I remember the day “Horses” by Patti Smith came in the mail in November 1975 the way, perhaps, Casper Rawls recalls hearing his first Don Rich guitar lick or when Richard Lord found out you could make a living throwing punches. The album literally changed my life by showing that self-expression could be raw and fearless, that there was a different world out there than the one I knew, that you could challenge and embrace tradition at the same time. I was almost 20 years old and I had never read “On the Road” or even heard of beat poetry. Living on the rock of Oahu, I never thought about hopping a train or thumbing a ride to a whole new urban ecosystem. But I would play “Land” from “Horses” and the corpuscles of possibility would just explode in my head. Although the Ramones are rightfully credited as being the first punk band, “Horses” was the first punk album by several months. It was so different than anything that came before it, and yet it understood the classic rock of the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Wilson Pickett.

I played the first song, a High Mass version of Them’s “Gloria” over and over and over before going on to the rest of the album. Then I walked over to KIKI-AM, in the same hideously ugly Kaka’ako neighborhood as Sunbums, the Honolulu rock rag I wrote for, and insisted that DJ Steven B. Williams play it. He did, because back then you could do stuff like that, but afterward he remarked that he “didn’t like what the singer does with her voice.” Perfect. I wanted him to play it, but not like it, because he was all into Aerosmith back then. The lines were being drawn for the next era of rock, when you couldn’t like both the Sex Pistols and AC/DC, even though they were both based on the same Chuck Berry/ Bo Diddley riffs.

The physical 1975 “Horses” album, which still watches over me from a wall in my home office, comes with some strange history. I was without it for about five years, moving to Los Angeles in 1978 and leaving behind all my albums with my sister Bridget, who soon got married and left the records with someone else. It wasn’t a big deal at all, as I’ve never been much of a record collector. Plus, the “Horses” album had a pretty prominent skip. A quarter on the needle cartridge didn’t help, but I played it anyway and after a while, the skip was just the way the song went to me.

Around 1983, I was at the Kam Drive-In swap meet (still my favorite thing to do on Oahu) and I came upon a booth that had all the standard secondhand fare, including a box of albums for, I think, $1 each. As I was thumbing through the usual Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur and Ozark Mountain Daredevils, I found that beautiful black and white Robert Maplethorpe photo of Patti staring right up at me. Sold! When I got home and played the record, all the memories came back. “My sins are my own, they belong to me, me,” Patti sang at one point and then it skipped to the next verse in mid-strum. “And she looked so fine.” It was my record! The one I dragged over to KIKI the day I got it. It came back to me, from a box on the ground next to a table of screwdrivers and naked Barbie dolls.

I’ve got “Horses” on CD now and don’t own a turntable anyway, so I have the album up on the wall. Patti’s eyes are positioned at the same level as mine and sometimes when I’m trying to recall the time when my dreams were, like my friends, all still alive, I stare at those dark, deep-seated eyes. At heart, she was an American artist, at heart she was the Original Sin, a fan of the sinister and the sublime. The first “chick singer” I didn’t want to be with but wanted to be like.

You’ve got to step outside the comfort zone and take a chance in life. You’ve got to move to New York City when you’re young or you’ll regret it the rest of your life. You’ve got to sing when everyone says you can’t because if you don’t then they’re right. But most of all, when key people in your life die – and Smith has lost her husband, her brother, her best friend and her mentor – it’s important to let their smiles, their wisdom, their kindness and their creativity live on inside you.

On my 53rd birthday, this was the gift to myself, writing and rewriting about an album that changed my life.

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