Catholicism, Freedom and Patti Smith

I’m possibly the only person to perform a Roman Catholic for greater freedom. Brought up in south east Asia, my only religious encounters, before going to an English boarding school, were the local muezzin’s call to prayer. Religious attendance at my boarding school’s sixteenth century chapel was compulsory. It quickly became clear that Christianity had little to offer me. At the time I had an interest in mysticism, which would intensify over the following twenty years, but Christianity appeared rather constrained by conventional banality. As we shuffled off to chapel each Sunday my curiosity was aroused by three boys that left the school grounds, unaccompanied. Investigation revealed these boys to be Roman Catholics. The school had no Roman Catholic housemaster so these boys walked to mass at the nearby Catholic church. I sensed a way to evade the crushing boredom I felt at sitting for almost two hours in chapel.

At the age of eleven boys transferred from the preparatory school to upper school. At the first day in my new boarding house, I nervously informed the house master that I was a Roman Catholic. “There are two of you,” he said, “so P_ and you will go with each other on Sunday.” We attended mass once, that first weekend, mostly to check that there wasn’t some form of roll call. Thereafter we’d sit in the adjacent cemetery for an hour and a half each Sunday, eating sweets and conversing about our mutual love: music. A year later our routine changed and, for a while, we’d go to the house of an older school friend, a day boy, and listen to his Patti Smith record.

In this way Roman Catholicism not only provided freedom from the stifling monotony of an Anglican church service, but also lead me to Patti Smith’s anarchic album, Horses, which, in turn, lead me to punk rock.

Don’t you love Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Patti Smith?

5 thoughts on “Catholicism, Freedom and Patti Smith

  1. I love this story. And it is probably the least conventional “punk rock discovery” tale I have read! Have you read Patti’s memoir? My favorite parts were the stories of her early days with Robert in New York. Reading about their unwavering commitment to art was inspiring.

    • Thank you! I’ve read “Just Kids” but had no idea about “Woolgathering” which I hope to read at some time this year. “Just Kids” is a superb evocation of the New York of the time, as much about the city as Patti and Robert.

      • Oh, I didn’t know about Woolgathering, either. I was referring to Just Kids. So thanks for that.

        “Smith introduces us to her tribe, a race of cloud dwellers, and to the fierce, vital pleasures of cloud watching and stargazing and wandering.”

        That sounds quite promising!

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