M Train, by Patti Smith - book review: The loneliness of the long-distance rock diva

Bloomsbury - £18.99

Fiona Sturges
Sunday 18 October 2015 11:22
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Patricia Lee "Patti" Smith became a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album 'Horses'
Patricia Lee "Patti" Smith became a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album 'Horses'

At the start of M Train we find Patti Smith asleep, fully clothed, on her bed at home in New York’s East Village, dreaming about a cowboy who says: “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” Waking, she is so haunted by the idea that she sets about doing exactly that.

Except that the resulting book isn’t about nothing at all. M Train documents a brief and largely uneventful period in the life of rock’s most celebrated renaissance woman. Dipping only occasionally into the past, M Train provides a vivid and fascinating glimpse into Smith’s life as it is now.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of her ground-breaking album Horses – its creator will be 69 in December – but musical achievements are far from her mind here. Instead, she lingers over daily activities such as tending to her cats, visiting coffee shops, taking photographs and thumbing through the many books that have sustained her (treasured authors include Haruki Murakami, W G Sebald and Jean Genet). It has the feel both of a personal diary and a portrait of an artist trying to make sense of the thoughts, images and dreams that forever crowd her consciousness.

There are trips to London, Berlin, Mexico City, Tokyo and Tangiers where Smith gives talks, and from where she visits landmarks connected to her idols (Kurosawa’s memorial; Kahlo’s house; Plath’s grave). Fittingly for an artist umbilically attached to her camera, she is given to zooming in on small details. Single objects (a stone, a chair, a desk) that are connected to those she admires are then imbued with a mystical significance. If the artists are her saints, their belongings are her holy relics.

Despite her extensive travels, her favourite spot remains the café around the corner from her home where, most mornings, she sits at the same table with her Moleskin notebook, writing, watching and drinking coffee (rare is the occasion in M Train that she’s not drinking coffee).

A portion of her heart is also given to Rockaway Beach where a friend opens a new café and where she buys a tatty bungalow that is promptly battered, but not flattened, by Hurricane Sandy.

While Smith has clearly grown accustomed to solitude, there’s a loneliness that underpins her existence in her later years, whether she’s washing dishes at home, getting on or off aeroplanes or sleeping in hotels thousands of miles from home.

“No one knew where I was. No one was expecting me,” she says sadly after an impromptu trip to London. On the plane to Tokyo, she cries for her late husband and soulmate, Fred “Sonic” Smith, the guitarist from the band MC5, who died from heart failure when he was 45.

“Just come back, I was thinking. You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop travelling; I will wash your clothes.”

The passing of time, Smith admits, is difficult – “Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things that I know.”

M Train is a vastly different proposition from Smith’s last award-winning book, Just Kids, which documented her move from southern New Jersey to New York, and her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in linear form.

By contrast, this is more impressionistic, a sometimes sweet, sometimes gritty scrapbook of thoughts, projects, sojourns, each of them intermingled with dreams and memories. Common to both books, however, is the singular elegance, poeticism and deft observation with which Smith writes.

She recently remarked in an interview that the book is “as close to knowing what I’m like as anything”. Certainly, there’s something heart-warming about learning that, when she comes to London, Smith likes nothing more than to hole up in her hotel room and watch detective shows on ITV3. Morse, Lewis, Wycliffe, Frost – she loves them all.

Similarly amusing are her sporadic fits of irritation. When a woman takes her table at her beloved New York café and makes a series of loud phone calls, Smith silently places her in a Midsomer Murders plotline where she is found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.

Elsewhere, we learn that she is superstitious (she takes a Tarot reading before going to sleep), catastrophically forgetful (she loses coats, notebooks, cameras and napkins on which she has scrawled ideas) and she has extended conversations with her television remote control.

There is no real beginning, middle or end to M Train though it offers the most rounded portrait you could hope for of a life lived intensely, truthfully and on a never-ending quest for artistic enrichment. As books about nothing go, this is really quite something.

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