Patti Smith Takes Us on a Journey Through Her Creative Life with “M Train”
Five years ago, in her dreamy, hardened, vulnerable, and steely nostalgic way, Patti Smith told us the story of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids (Ecco). In 1967, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter was determined to make art her life and dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities in Philadelphia to live this life. So, she left her family behind for a new life in Brooklyn, and soon found herself homeless, jobless, and hungry.
Through a series of events, Smith met a young man named Robert Mapplethorpe, who changed her life. In her typically lyrical and poignant manner, Smith describes the start of a romance and lifelong friendship with this man: “It was the summer Coltrane died,” she writes. “Flower children raised their arms … and Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, and the summer of love.”
Just Kids – this beautifully crafted love letter to her friend, who died in 1989 – functions as a memento mori of a relationship fueled by passion for art and writing. Smith transports readers to what seemed like halcyon days for art and artists in New York, as she shares tales of the denizens of Max’s Kansas City, the Hotel Chelsea, Scribner’s, Brentano’s, and Strand bookstore. In the lobby of the Chelsea, where she and Mapplethorpe lived for many years, she got to know William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Johnny Winter. Most affecting in this tender and tough memoir, however, is her deep love for Mapplethorpe and her abiding belief in his genius. Smith’s elegant eulogy helps to explain the chaos and the creativity so embedded in that earlier time and in Mapplethorpe’s life and work.
Critics and fans alike of course recognized the beauty of Smith’s writing and the power of her story. Just Kids won the National Book Award in 2010, and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography/Memoir. The hardcover sold over 60,000 copies, and the paperback to date has sold 368,000 copies, an astonishing number in light of the generally low sales of rock star memoirs, but not surprising given the beauty and passion of Smith’s prose.
Fans who have been clamoring for more from Smith about her life and work need not wait any longer. In October, her new memoir, M Train (Knopf) will hit bookstore shelves, and with a first printing of 200,000, everyone who wants a copy should be able to get one.
In M Train, Smith provides us with a “roadmap to her life,” guiding us as we accompany her on her peripatetic journey around the world, from café to café, cemetery to cemetery, hotel to hotel, and train station to train station.
“I believe in movement,” she writes. “I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon … But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing … I believe in life which one day each of us shall lose.”
A wistful and pensive tour guide, Smith shifts in and out of focus, distracted by the dreams that haunt her as she moves through the realities of loss, death, illness, and the very simple ways that life sometimes flusters and sidetracks us – in the security line at the airport, for example, as she travels to Mexico City.
In these 19 poetic reflections, Smith takes us from Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul and a meeting of the Continental Drift Club in Berlin, to the Far Rockaway bungalow that she buys. We travel to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana, which is home to the French penal colony of which Jean Genet writes in The Thief’s Journal. Smith interprets that his writing was “of a hierarchy of inviolable criminality, a manly saintliness that flowered at its crown.”
Drawn into the mystical pages of Haruki Murakami’s Sheep Chase, Smith soon sits at her corner table in the Café ‘Ino reading all of Murakami. Picking up his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, “sets in motion,” Smith writes, “an unstoppable trajectory, like a meteor hurtling toward a barren and entirely innocent sector of earth.” Transfixed, Smith pauses to meditate on the nature of classic literature, remarking that there are two kinds of masterpieces: “there are classic works monstrous and divine like Moby Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita.”
Memories become palpable and reality pervades memory in Smith’s haunting and joyful recollections of her life with her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith. She recalls their early days: “In 1976 I had met the musician Fred Sonic Smith in Detroit. It was an unexpected encounter that slowly altered the course of my life. My yearning for him permeated everything – my poems, my songs, my heart … I said good-bye to New York City and the aspirations it contained.”
On fishing with him: “Fred taught me to cast and gave me a portable Shakespeare rod whose parts fit like arrows in a carrying case shaped like a quiver. Fred was a graceful and patient caster with an arsenal of lures, bait, and weights.”
Smith recalls the dreams that inspired the couple’s life and the fretfully easy way in which they slip fitfully or gently into another. Living for a while in St. Augustine, Florida, the couple imagined buying an abandoned lighthouse or a shrimp trawler. Time passed as on a “clock with no hands.”
“Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license,” she writes, “but couldn’t afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of a clock with no hands. Tasks were completed, sump pumps manned, sandbags piled, trees planted, shirts ironed, hems stitched, and yet we reserved the right to ignore the hands that kept on turning. Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.”
Smith illustrates her meditations with her signature Polaroid photos of objects such as the chess table where Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky, Frida Kahlo’s crutches, and her father’s desk chair, on which she meditates, capturing his personality with a mystical elegance: “He was a factory man with a mathematical curiosity, handicapping heaven, searching for patterns, and portal of probability opening up into the meaning of life.”
M Train carries us through the despair, loss, hope, consolation, and mysteries Smith faced as she lived through Fred’s death, but also as Smith revealed her struggles with the writer’s craft and came to realize, through one of her dreams, that the “writer is a conductor.”
As she reflects on her travels through her mind and life, she concludes: “As a child, I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so … Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.”
Thankfully, we’re the beneficiaries of Smith’s refusal to put down her pen. Her incandescent prose conducts us through the ineffable, yet profoundly physical, character of our, and her, existence. Smith is singular in her ability to capture the effervescence of dreams and the haunted corners of life, and it’s not too much to claim that she inherits the powerful vision and poignant, evocative writing style of Rimbaud, Genet, Sylvia Plath, William Burroughs, W.G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag.
At the same time that M Train comes out, Patti Smith Collected Lyrics, 1970-2015 (Ecco) also arrives, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Smith’s seminal album, Horses. This revised and updated edition of the collection, first published in 1998, contains more than 35 new songs, new artwork, and an introduction by Smith. This collection of lyrics provides a fitting companion to M Train.