Books, Non-Fiction

Patti Smith’s Absorbing Eccentricities: ‘M-Train’ Book Review

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Patti Smith is a living legend, goddess of punk, high priestess of the alternate rock scene born out of 70s New York. I know this thanks to the many and credible artistic and journalistic sources who extol her as such, and thought it was about time a year or so ago that I bridge this shameful gap in my aural vocabulary.

Horses seemed an obvious place to start. Smith’s highly acclaimed first album, released two days before I was born, has endured for decades and been cited by countless very talented folks (Springsteen, Dylan, Sleater Kinney, Sonic Youth, Johnny Marr and Madonna to name a few) as an important influence on their work. In what was clearly a half-arsed first listen I thought it was a bit weird and put it aside, not returning to this puzzle of the cult status of Patti until encouraged recently by a friend to read Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids.

Just Kids chronicles Smith’s artistic coming of age, from awkward New Jersey kid to innovative member of the New York punk scene of the 1970s. It is the story she promised her lover and partner in crime from the early days, Robert Mapplethorpe, she would tell, and reading it drew me back to Smith’s music and infused it with a poetry, edginess, darkness and light that I hadn’t gauged the first time around.

Beneath its lyrical prose Just Kids follows a fairly linear storyline, interweaving Smith and Mapplethorpe’s personal growth as artists with key events and identities of the time. Warhol and the the Factory crowd are there at Max’s Kansas City club, and the New York community collectively mourns the untimely loss of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin within one tragic month of each other. The reader’s journey through these historical checkpoints comes to an end just as Smith’s career as artist and performer takes off, so it’s not surprising that fans of Just Kids may have anticipated Smiths’ next book M Train would pick up where the last one left off.

Not so, and the fact that it doesn’t seems to have really peeved and perplexed some people, however I found M Train to be an absorbing and beautiful read.

M Train is full of worldly experience without being overbearing or rock-star indulgent.

A fragmented tale told across time and location, M Train is infused with Smith’s eccentricities. Her text is woven from beautifully turned memories and observations that lend even the more domestic moments – like cursing at the remote control and watching CSI: Miami – with a poetry that heightens their purpose:

  • I changed your batteries, I say pleadingly, so change the damn channel.
  • Aren’t you supposed to be working?
  • I’m watching my crime shows, I murmur apologetically, not a trifling thing. Yesterday’s poets are today’s detectives. They spend a life sniffing out the hundredth line, wrapping up a case, and limping exhausted into the sunset. They entertain and sustain me.

While the book is anchored in the routine of Smith’s life, as she trundles between her beloved Café Ino and home again to feed her cats and grapple with her writing, M Train lifts off these moments to transport the reader to some fascinating and dreamlike destinations.

Smith recounts a trip to French Guiana with her late husband Fred Sonic Smith in pursuit of one of her ‘quixotic notions’ – to collect stones from the ruins of the Saint-Laurent prison for her literary idol Jean Genet, who revered the place but was unlikely to visit in his remaining lifetime.

We learn the origins of her official status as Number Twenty-Three within the obscure Continental Drift Club, a secretive society scattered across the globe and dedicated to the memory of German geophysicist and meteorologist Alfed Wegener. And we follow her obsession with coffee to Veracruz in Mexico, where she spends a few ‘transporting’ days indulging in her ‘substance of choice’ under the flimsy guise as a journalist for Coffee Trader Magazine.

Smith meanders seamlessly from the present day to her childhood, from Wittgenstein to The Killing, from room to room and continent to continent. M Train is full of worldly experience without being overbearing or rock-star indulgent. Smith is an artist, musician, wordsmith and legend – long live Patti.

You can buy M Train here

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