By Cheryl Graham
The Woods Memorial branch library, a small white stucco building, sits on a plat of North First Avenue that would have been considered the outer reaches of Tucson when the branch was opened in the late 1960s. The air inside is cool, but not cold, a respite from the desert heat. Natural light seeping in through a strip of high, narrow windows undercuts the low hum of fluorescents. The smell is clean and new, air-conditioned through creosote bushes and palo verde trees.
In 1978 I was 16 years old, and dedicated to my mission of reading every back issue of Rolling Stone, cover-to-cover, in chronological order. Popular music was my religion and my salvation. I spent hours in my room listening to records, poring over album artwork and scrutinizing liner notes with a kind of monastic devotion. Each Tuesday night when the library was closing, I placed the copies neatly back on the shelf, hoping nobody would mess them up in the coming week, so I could pick up where I’d left off.
I must have been up to 1975 or ’76 with the back issues, because I kept seeing advertisements for a record called Horses. The album cover was starkly black-and-white, and the gender of the person in the photo would have been in question were it not for the name: Patti Smith. The ads were always accompanied by critics’ raves, but if this record was so great, why hadn’t I heard of it? Why hadn’t I heard it? As far as I knew — and if anyone would know, it would be me — Patti Smith had never been played on the radio in Tucson. A look at the 1978 play logs of KWFM, the city’s mighty “album-oriented” station, likely reveals a heavy rotation of the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles and Bob Seger. Never mind that Patti Smith’s third album was released in March of that year (Horses being her first) — as far as anyone in Tucson was aware, California country rock was the sound and the vision.
So who was Patti Smith, anyway? She surely looked nothing like my hometown hero, Linda Ronstadt. She didn’t possess the same earthy femininity and coquettish sexuality, nor did she have the same laid-back, stoner vibe of any of the southern California bands dominating the airwaves at the time. I think I knew she was from New York, but it might as well have been Mars — I was 16 and had been out of Arizona maybe twice. Quite unexpectedly, I found a copy of Horses in the record section one night at the library, and took it home.
The album cover provides no indication of what kind of music is inside. Patti Smith doesn’t even look like a musician at all. The photograph (this is also the first time I see the name Robert Mapplethorpe) is cool monochrome, and the portrait is hard to read. There’s an openness to the gaze, but there’s an edge to it, a kind of youthful defiance, mixed with a weary detachment. The image doesn’t exactly beckon you to take out the record and give it a spin. In fact, it kind of dares you to. But I figure if Rolling Stone liked it, it must be good. Still, I feel some apprehension when I lower the needle to the vinyl.
The first song begins with a simple, plodding chord progression on solo piano. For the first four measures, I am lulled into thinking, maybe this is some kind of avant-garde classical album. And then, after that hypnotic 4-bar, 12-second intro:
Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine
I jump. That voice, raspy and snake-like — it scares me. My heart beats a little faster as the tempo builds, the guitar licks around the piano and the drums come in. I listen intently to the first stanza, and then, as the sneer becomes a song, she sings:
I go to this here party and I just get bored
Until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing
Humpin’ on the parking meter, leanin’ on the parking meter
Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling and then I’m gonna — ah-ah — make her mine
Wait — what?!? Oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-god. This is a woman, singing about a woman, in a way that no one has ever done. My heart is racing, and I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing.
Counting the time, then you came to my room
And you whispered to me and we took the big plunge
This is the kind of thing that, when you hear it, even though you know you’re alone, you look around to make sure nobody else sees you. Because you want to have this singular experience all to yourself, but you also know it’s dangerous. Because if somebody hears what you’re hearing and sees you hearing it, they will know what you know, and sense, even a little bit, what you feel. And they won’t understand. They won’t understand and they’ll think it’s bad and weird and wrong and subversive. And it’s definitely weird and subversive. But it’s not bad, and it’s not wrong. It’s glorious.
Thank you, Patti Smith. You changed my life. And you saved it.
Cheryl Graham has lived in Iowa City since 2008. She is an artist and illustrator, and is currently enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 195.