Heroes & Villains Patti Smith ; Joseph O'Connor, Novelist, on His Hero

Article excerpt

I REMEMBER the moment she entered my life. My 14th birthday, 20 September 1977. I was in a scruffy little record store in central Dublin, a cellar reeking of dope fumes and mould. An aunt had sent me a fiver as a gift. I'd intended to buy an album by The Clash.

I was flicking through a rack of second-hand punk records, with their splatters of lurid graffiti and blackmail lettering, when my fingers stopped at a sleeve that was unusual. A stark black and white photograph, it showed an extraordinary looking woman. The image was like a still from a European movie. The record was Horses by Patti Smith.

I had never seen anyone who looked like this. Yeats described a lover as having "beauty like a tightened bow", and the old priest who taught us English used to try and explain the simile. But when I saw that photograph, I knew what it meant. Androgynously, sullenly, sculpturally gorgeous, she had the air of a young Keith Richards about to embark on an evening's debauchery. Her confidence was enthralling, her raffish self-possession. It was the most awesome image of a woman that I had seen in my 14 years. It's still the only album I've ever bought for its sleeve.

I didn't expect much from the record itself. But the first time I played it, even that magnificent cover stopped mattering. Every life has moments remembered in emotional slow-motion. The first kiss, the first heartbreak, the first love you really meant. The first time I heard Patti Smith's voice is one of my moments. So austere and raw; so beautiful yet so violent. "Jesus died for somebody's sins - but not mine," she sang, already destined to become the most influential woman in rock history.

That the human larynx was capable of making such an unearthly noise was simply a matter for heart-stopping joy. The brother of a friend had a Howlin' Wolf record; Patti's singing reminded me of those exuberantly fiery blues. But it also brought to mind the traditional sean nos keening [Irish lamentations sung a capella] I'd heard with my father on trips to rural Galway. Her voice would soar from a growl to a scream in a single phrasing. It swooped and hollered, it crooned and barked. …