Fans of anything have an experience like this, where they discover a piece of work that unlocks their chosen medium’s possibilities. For physical artists, the experience may come face-to-face while surveying a particular work’s nuances. Writers might experience this in the midst of a particularly self-aligning page. More often than not, musicians experience this from the privacy afforded by headphones, a home stereo or an intimate concert.
It can be challenging to imagine fully formed musical heavyweights like Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) or Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) needing moments like this one, but that’s the unifying theme in a new book from NPR’s All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. Your Song Changed My Life explores that a-ha moment for many legends, including Stipe, Page and Brownstein; as well as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Dave Grohl, Justin Vernon, Conor Oberst, Josh Ritter and more.
The book is out today via Harper Collins. Below, you can read an exclusive excerpt from Stipe’s chapter, which details the R.E.M. singer’s illuminating experience with Patti Smith’s Horses. Check it out, and share your own life-changing musical experiences in the comments section.
Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen, Excerpt from Michael Stipe Chapter
Until that day, there was truly nothing like the album Horses. Even the cover was something of a singular event, a photograph of Patti appearing mannish in a wrinkled white shirt with a sport coat slung over her left shoulder and a horse pin on her collar. Her skinny body and unkempt black hair read attitude. It was strikingly different from the way the music world usually portrayed woman. I’m specifically thinking about Carly Simon’s cover for 1975’s Playing Possum—she’s on her knees, wearing knee-high black boots, black stockings, and a black camisole that barely covers her ass. Robert Mapplethorpe took Patti’s photo in a Greenwich Village penthouse, and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale produced the album. You can draw a line from that band’s poetic chaos to Patti Smith—but still, there was nothing like her.
The song that captured and changed this bubblegum-loving boy was a nine-minute-and- fifteen-second adventure. “It’s a little bit of a doo-wop song. Looking back, you realize how much she was pulling from kind of The Shirelles, The Ronettes, or Ronnie Spector, that kind of girl-group thing that I think she grew up with and that was easily moving into her music and maybe had a big influence on her.” More than anything else Michael was moved by the words. “I know what the lyrics are that I latched onto and could not get out of my head. ‘It’s as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars because when he looked up, they started to slip.’ That’s the line! And that’s when she goes from kind of a talking incantation into a singing thing. Within the singing there’s a line, probably the second part of the lyric, a line about a little boy’s face lit up with such naked joy. ‘And his eyes were like two white opals, seeing everything just a little bit too clearly.’ And that’s when I was hooked. That was for me the dervish moment. That’s when I felt transformed by rock and roll and by art and by music and by poetry and by some projection of who this woman was and what she was saying to me. She wasn’t saying it to anyone else, it was just to me. I think I’ve been trying to rewrite those words as a lyricist . . . for most of my adult life.”