“If you inspire people to do their own thing, I think that’s the greatest thing. One always hopes for that…” Patti Smith
It’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Patti Smith’s revolutionary album Horses, an album that changed my life and launched my short-lived career as a punk rock star.
So much inspired me about this album, from Robert Maplethorpe’s iconic photograph on the cover, featuring Patti in gender bending church-boy attire sourced from (my then favorite store) Salvation Army (the record producers wanted to pretty her up but she wouldn’t have it), to the shocking and irreverent beat poetry in her lyrics—Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine. Above all else, I loved that she couldn’t sing very well—not in the standard sense, and she did it anyway. She didn’t look or act like a female was supposed to and she stayed true to herself. This was beautiful to me.
I’ve never been good at singing. To this day I struggle to carry even the most basic tune (think: Happy Birthday). There’s probably a genetic component. My maternal lineage is shockingly unmusical. Someone I studied with a few years back insisted that I’m not actually tone deaf—that something else, something psychological was blocking me. Maybe because I was ridiculed as a child—the chorus teacher asked me to please mouth the lyrics so as not to throw the others off. Or perhaps I was traumatized by my failed attempts at various instruments—violin, recorder, flute, piano. Or more likely by two disastrous piano teachers—the ancient and unappetizing Mrs. Gerken, with a stench worse than pickles, who dropped dead after one of our concerts, replaced by the dapper Mr. Palmer. Songbook on his lap, he sat beside me on the piano bench, holding my hand to point out notes and tap beats against his crotch. Months went by before I asked my mother why Mr. Palmer kept ping-pong balls in his pocket.
Mine were dubious musical beginnings—at best.
Enter Patti Smith. The exact right moment. If she could express herself in such an original and subversive way… well so could I.
My college band, The Shutter Screams, featured me on vocals. And I wrote the songs.
To give you an idea:
I feel pretty
I feel complete
I love it but I hate it
It’s real deep, it’s real deep, it’s real deep
I want to go to sleep
I wanna take your picture.
I wanna shoot you baby
I wanna make you mine.
Followed by the much less subtle:
Love is nuclear waste.
Love is vaginal discharge.
It wasn’t until recently that I made an important connection. My musical disability has a hidden message—not just meant for my singing. I need to live my entire life off-key. I should always follow my own tune, not the one prescribed by the song, or by society.
Thank you Patti Smith. You have been a background deity, guiding my path. You inspire me to be true to myself.