A Mash Note To Ms. Smith

by Sara Clarke

The cover of Horses. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

When I was nineteen years old I quit college and came to New York City. Despite despite being the most citified girl in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, I was country through and through.

I had spent most of my teenage years reading, watching, and listening to everything about bohemian life in New York: SoHo, the Village, the Lower East Side; Alphabet City, CBGB, the Beats. Upon arrival in New York I would spend hours wandering in the East Village, awed just to be walking on the same streets where Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed had walked. And so I discovered St. Mark’s Bookshop.

I couldn’t afford to buy anything there, and my slightly skewed moral compass wouldn’t let me steal because obviously these were good people fighting the good fight against the Barnes & Noble across Astor Place. What I got from St. Mark’s was cheap, but more powerful than anything I could shoplift up the block at the Starbucks-scented megamart.

On a column in the middle of the store, between Critical Theory and Theatre, there was a poster. A poster of the cover of Horses.

Despite my worship of all things Downtown, this was the first I was hearing about Patti Smith. They didn’t sell her albums at Walmart, and my dad’s record collection leaned more towards the British iteration of punk.

I went into St. Mark’s Bookshop on a brutal winter day, and saw this poster of the cover of this album I’d never heard, an image of this person I’d never seen. I didn’t know what to make of her, but I was sure that she knew secrets.

Then I came to the worst possible conclusion. I rationalized that, based on this mysterious image, I was not worthy of her music. This wasn’t for country girls in bellbottom jeans they’d lovingly hand-embroidered with dandelions, violets, and the names of bands nobody in the North ever heard of. I wasn’t cool enough for Patti Smith.

So I turned away from the poster, flipped halfheartedly through a Diane Arbus book on the front table, and left. I would never belong in New York.

I have never been so wrong.

When I finally heard her music, what I found was not what I expected. It’s true, Horses is challenging. “Birdland” still scares me a little. I don’t want the boy in “Land” to get shoved in that locker (or maybe raped? Seriously, “Land” is one of the most chilling songs this side of “Strange Fruit”). Every time I hear “Redondo Beach” I dread the narrator’s realization that her lover has commited suicide. But though Horses is difficult, even confrontational, it’s not cliquish in the way I expected it to be at nineteen. Or maybe no great music can be cliquish in the way I thought music could be then. Either way, Patti, I’m glad you let me in.

I like the challenging story-poems of Horses, and the petulant Rock Star posturing of songs like “25th Floor – High on Rebellion” and “Rock n Roll Babelogue”. I dislike “Rock n Roll N****r” for reasons that are mostly political and don’t realate to the time and place you wrote it. It was also difficult to hate when I saw it performed live, so I’ll give her that one. It’s kind of great she’s not pretending that didn’t happen.

What I like most, though, are the times Smith speaks to the lonely outsider who still lives in me. Case study: Wave. I had to stop the title track and sit with it a minute. It was as if she’d gone inside my brain, found the most awkward part of my soul, and wrote in her voice.

It’s a cliche, as a fan, to say that someone writes your soul. But this is not that glorious Ani di Franco way where it turns out that she knew exactly what it was like to be in love. This is a sad and socially inept deer-in-headlights kind of thing, where you knew exactly what it was like to make eye contact with greatness and find yourself lacking. It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling that (someday I’ll tell you the story of how I once accidentally eye-fucked Steve Buscemi), but it was also a little like she might be mocking me.

I felt like I was back staring at that poster in St. Marks books. How dare I presume to feel that kind of connection with the cool kids’ table? How dare I presume that Queen Cool Kid would recogize anything if she deigned to look into my soul?

My suspicions were confirmed with “Frederick”. It’s an homage to that awkward moment where you like someone and all you can really say to them is “hey.” When you don’t know a lot about them, but you know their name sounds like heaven. Patti Smith sings “Frederick” like she’s reading the future in the name’s taste. Like she’s mentally signing “Mrs. Frederick Sonic Smith” with a bunch of hearts after it. Somehow, with the right person, “hey” is enough. Ani knows what it feels like to be in love, but Patti knows what it feels like to be really deep in bashful ridiculous Like. It sounds less noble but is much more complicated. She’s not afraid to be vulnerable, even silly. It turns out she can step off the cool kids’ table for a moment and live in the same speechless awkwardness I’ve called home most of my life.

Patti Smith did a reading at St. Marks books a couple weeks ago. She stood right in front of that column and read poems about her idols and inspirations and her baby sister. I’m still not sure if she’s Queen Cool Kid or striving and awkward and silent like me. But I was there, standing among my brown-haired New York literary clones — clones partially spawned by her — and in that moment I felt like I finally belonged. It was sort of terrible. A part of me wished for my old jeans with the embroidered New Orleans band names, just to stand out. But, still, for a moment I belonged.

So thank you, Patti, for inviting me here.