Patti Smith had no major songwriting experience when she started work on Horses, her debut album. The songs came out of her poetry – a true natural talent that was sprung upon the New York punk rock scene like a surprise gift on a doorstep.
Horses turns 40 this December and it’s time to start looking back on this great work of art and my personal favorite song from that album, “Free Money”. Horses is certainly one of the most influential albums of all time, on numerous “all-time greatest album” lists including Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (#44). Even the Library of Congress knows a good thing when they hear it: the album was inducted into the US National Recording Registry in 2010, meeting their criteria of being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But what is influence – just getting on lists? No, Horses goes well beyond that. Both Michael Stipe and Courtney Love cite Horses as inspiring them to become musicians. So many artists have been inspired by Horses, even going as far as covering songs from it, as is the case with Sammy Hagar and “Free Money”, which he covered in 1977.
The great thing about “Free Money” is that it speaks of complicated themes — childhood memories, unrealized dreams, and life as an artist — in very accessible lyrics. Smith cited her mom’s dream of winning the weekly lottery as the song’s main inspiration in a 2005 interview with The Guardian: ‘She always dreamed about winning the lottery. But she never bought a lottery ticket! She would just imagine if she won, make lists of things she would do with the money – a house by the sea for us kids, then all kinds of charitable things’.
Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery,
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.
“Free Money” also is a song for artists or anyone else who has to suffer financially on the way to fulfilling a dream. She sings about buying a jet plane with the win and going into the stratosphere, then back down to the sands of Arabia, and to cold fields of snow. She’s not buying things, she’s buying experiences. The ultimate desire to experience and create without worrying about paying rent.
Oh, baby, it would mean so much to me,
Baby, I know our troubles will be gone.
Oh, I know our troubles will be gone, goin’ gone
If we dream, dream, dream for free.
Whether you’re listening to “Free Money” for inspiration as you create great art or even just as a theme song as you buy lottery tickets at the corner shop or at theLotter, the lyrics will feel just as fresh as they first did nearly 40 years ago. So do like the Library of Congress and Rolling Stone, and put Patti Smith’s Horses and “Free Money” on your all-time greatest playlist today.