It’s Patti Smith’s birthday today. I think she’s something like 110 years old, but don’t quote me on that.
Pictured above is a photo of my original copy of Horses, that I got for Christmas 1975, when I was 15 years old.
To that point, it was the greatest Christmas present I ever got. I was only out of the mental hospital for a few weeks by that time (if you’re new to the blog, see posts from August, I think? One titled “ooh yeah, throwing up”.)
Angels truly blessed me by bringing Patti Smith into my world when I was at my absolute lowest. She kept me alive, and helped me believe in the validity of myself — kept me writing songs, too, until I was old enough to get the hell out of Dodge and go to New York City and become a singer-songwriter.
Directly before being put in the sanitarium, I had bought a copy of the book Cowboy Mouth, by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. I bought it at a library sale for 10 cents. I had no idea who either of them were back then. I bought the book because it was a collection of plays, and because I liked the feel of the book in my hands, you know?
When they came and told me I was getting locked up in a loony bin, I was absolutely terrified. And they came for me at the final moment, you know? They said: Pack some things, we’re putting you away. Right now. In my 14-year-old terror, I grabbed whatever I could find that I thought would save me, and as luck would have it, I grabbed the book Cowboy Mouth from the top of my dresser.
Obviously, confinement in a mental hospital was a truly low point in my life. And I didn’t “get better” in there, unfortunately. I got worse. Because I learned how to fake everything and conceal my problems, because I was always trying to avoid conflict with the staff and things like the “Isolation Room.” An actual padded room, with a metal bed, a thin mattress, no lights and just a small window way at the top of one wall. How my mind really, really wanted to get out of that window. But anyway.
I read Cowboy Mouth and fell in love with Patti Smith. I had never encountered a woman who could write like she could. She was transgressive and courageous. I didn’t really use those terms back then, I just knew she gave me a fierce amount of determination to survive all that had happened, and was happening, to me.
The angels stepped in again, while I was waiting to see my appointed psychiatrist one afternoon. There was a copy of Mademoiselle Magazine on the coffee table in his waiting room. I flipped through it to discover an interview with and photos of Patti Smith!! That was when I learned that she had a record coming out at the end of that year – Horses.
Honestly, it gave me something to live for. And made me more determined than ever to move to NYC as soon as I could conceivably do that. Because, clearly, Patti was NYC at that point — all those poets! All that rock & roll. Wow.
Well, Horses was the most amazing album I ever heard in my life. It changed me. It solidified my determination to survive my own life – all the rapes and the utter abuse and cruelty. The only other record album that had a similar effect on my determination to survive came 10 years later, in NYC, when I bought The First Born is Dead by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
You know, sadly, the man in my family who bought me Horses for Christmas, who made me so happy and gave me something to help me be courageous about life, was also the same man who, a couple years later, abducted me out to the country, drugged me and raped me for hours on end.
You know, the angels will give you something transcendent and beautiful, and then Life comes along and says “there’s a catch.” The angels have given you the key to your redemption already, but you have to remember to use it when the black rains come.
It’s sometimes a struggle to find that key when you really need it most. But I tell you, gang, I keep working on it.
Anyway. Happy birthday to Patti and to everything she’s always stood for in this world.