My favorite album since I was 17 is Patti Smith‘s Horses.
Is there something about our teens that creates lifelong bonding impressions? Maybe it’s the first steps into adulthood where we are looking around for inspiration that we are not alone.
I was 16, incarcerated in a Victorian boys boarding school for five years. We were called “new scum” for our first year at school, then “scum” for the second year, by both teachers and other students. Only in your third year did you get your real name. On the night when I first heard Horses I was summoned to the housemaster’s study to receive a phone call from my mother telling me that my father was having an emergency operation and at his age could well die. I was too far away from home to get back to his bedside so in retrospect this information may be filed under “dumb parenting.” At institutions like this school boys prison, you learn how not to show emotion. I sucked in my tears, numbly sat through homework period, assembly, prayers, herded into our dormitories by 9:45, lights out at 10, silence at 10;30.
There is no way I am going to sleep. I creep down through the corridors, avoiding the house prefects patrolling for runaways. I make it to my study and put on a cassette that I had vaguely heard of in the previous week. Listening on headphones, this 16-year-old boy who has to go to church seven days a week, is struck by the opening lines.
However it’s the third song that marked me for life.
“His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene
And the boy was just standing alone
Looking at the shiny red tractor
Him and his daddy used to sit inside
And circle the blue fields and grease the night.
It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
‘Cause when he looked they started to slip.”
The song “Birdland” is a nine minute, 16 second improvised poem/song based around a boy losing his father. It floored me and opened the floodgates. That this woman across the Atlantic could write something so deep and personal that could reach a 16-year-old boy with the exact medicine that he needed went deep into my unconscious and left me with the desire to create something that might heal and inspire others. That five years later I ended up joining a band whose every song has been created by improvisation is a secondary yet no less important, fallout from that night. Patti’s don’t-give-a-shit-how-I-look attitude and her I-am-an- uncompromising -artist stance, went in there somewhere too.
Yes, the particular circumstance of my hearing this record bonded me deep, but the record holds its place in time as one of the all time greats. Only Leonard Cohen and Dylan took poetry into music in this way. Its a lyricists album, the band selflessly track her every move, Its bold, brave and perfectly imperfect. It cuts through my life like a guillotine. I listen to it once a year, saved up for those special occasions.
James play with The Psychedelic Furs and Dear Boy at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August 7 at the Greek Theatre.