I love having Patti Smith tell stories like she does in M Train, her latest memoir. She has so many of them, too, and they’re all different, complex and enchanting. They wind around each other like rope. It’s like having that worldly distant relative gather the young cousins together at a boring family event and confide in them fantastic, intricate experiences. If you enjoyed 2010’s National Book Award-winning Just Kids, this book will undoubtedly please you as well. And I think we’re fortunate for as close a look at Patti as any of us are probably ever going to get.
Her writing is easy and direct; her indomitable curiosity is obvious on every page. Certain words flicker like mica (“The train line crippled and its sad bowels ripped apart, thousands of salt-coated wires, the gone intestines of motion.”). Sundry fleeting images of places she has visited, awake or dreaming; montages of cross-hatched observations, with the deep references of a collector or scholar; by turns warm, wary, cagey, detached, and involved, each sentence leaves details begging to be considered further. It’s energetic writing and compelling storytelling that actually sound like the author enjoys relating. These tales of travel, both inward and outward bound, that perfect shot through the lens of a Polaroid Land camera, and the pursuit of a good cup of coffee—they all provide the foundation here, but they all unspool casually over time, reweaving among themselves. “I hate being confined,” she says, “especially when it’s for my own good.” That could be said for the way Patti writes as well. Keep up, or lose track at your own risk.
Patti can apparently talk to anyone easily, living, dead, imaginary. They’re brief conversations (from her exchange with an envisioned Nikola Tesla: “Thank you, Mr. Tesla. Is there something I can do for you? Yes, he said, could you move a bit toward the left? You’re standing in my light”), at least the ones we’re party to in M Train, except for a book-long, mostly one-sided chat she has with an enigmatic cowpoke who reappears to dispense oblique precepts about “nothing” for her consideration.
A lot of Patti’s journeys are no longer than treks to her beloved Café ’Ino in the West Village neighborhood where she lives, and a regular table and chair where she writes and makes her plans, none of which could be considered ordinary. Or she goes to Rockaway Beach, where she impulsively purchases a bungalow in poor repair, with the aim to rebuild it to serve as a refuge by the seaside, her “Alamo,” so named for the worn fence surrounding it.
Some are pilgrimages to the homes, villages and graves of the poets and writers who inspired her, like Genet and Dazai. She draws energy and inspiration for future writings of her own in those spaces, and often she brings and leaves some form of tribute. Enthusiastic gratitude for their insight and direction that motivates her visits. Patti lives a life that allows her to fulfill these kinds of spiritual journeys, and we are the better for it, getting to read her description.
Some are trips with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, whose presence and absence are also evident everywhere in M Train. Fred was a good guy to travel with; he negotiated a potentially unfriendly border crossing with a non-English-speaking official with a bottle of cognac and charm. He was the love of her life, the father of her son and daughter, and Patti often conjures up his soul for comfort and reflection. Her treasured brother Todd, who died a month after Fred, is also around, helping renovate a café of her own that was never to be, and to force Patti to bear up and attend Fred’s memorial service. She saves her most exquisite sadness for passages in which they figure, her longing abject and bittersweet: “Fred, fighting for his life could be felt in the howling wind. A great branch from our oak tree fell across the driveway, a message from him, my quiet man.”
My friends and I came of age listening to Fred’s manic MC5 music, and we knew about Patti from CREEM magazine, some Blue Öyster Cult lyrics and the poem on the bandage inside A Wizard, A True Star. We saw her picture in Rock Scene next to Lenny Kaye, and we couldn’t wait to hear her. We all liked Horses, but we loved Radio Ethiopia, and then “Because the Night” happened on our radios, of course. Somehow her books of poems escaped my attention, but I’ve never read a lot of poetry anyway. After I moved to New York, she was already legendary and touring behind a hit record, and I had my own rock musician manqué to develop. So I fell away and did not keep up with her through the Michigan years (although there was that one geeky moment at SXSW in when a fellow Continental Drifter and I spotted Patti on a street, walking toward us; we caught her eye, nodded brightly, then completely fell apart once she was out of range), until 2010 when her best-selling book about her young Manhattan relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe drew me back in to her writing enthusiastically. Now I’m trying to make up for lost time, going back and revisiting her albums and books with a newfound interest from her current works.
Patti makes being wise and smart such appealing qualities—can she please have a new young audience, which adores her like their elders did? (They may have go back to make notes on some of the names, though, if the Murakami and Mrabet references fly over their heads like they did mine). These views into Patti Smith’s life often seem so fantastical one could feel they are reading fiction, if we didn’t know better, and if her moody photographs throughout weren’t there for proof as well. It’s good that someone gets to live this uncompromising a life in the 21st century, since most of us won’t have (or take) that opportunity. Like Just Kids did, getting these glimpses of what she does with her time and her mind are purely fascinating and glorious to read. M Train makes me feel as though we could actually have a short conversation of our own.
A founding member of the dbs and the Continental Drifters, Peter Holsapple is a musician and songwriter who has played and sung with bands ranging from REM to Hootie and the Blowfish. This is his first book review since the fifth grade.