I am late to the party on Patti Smith —rocker, reader, poet, artist, writer. In 2015, I read a glowing review of her book “M Train” and checked it out of the library., but never got around to reading it.
Flash forward to a couple months ago when I came across an audiobook of it, and thought I’d give it a try. One of my sons was exploring her old albums so her name must have been subliminally planted in the front of my mind. Plus, I was in a melancholy mood and, because this was a book about her grief over the death of husband, Fred Sonic Smith, I thought it would be just the ticket.
What I discovered is a remarkable person, a writer of depth and whimsey, and someone I wish I had known about years ago.
Smith says “M Train” is a roadmap to her life. And what a life. She is an artist in the true sense of the word: Making art for art’s sake, not caring whether people understand it, finding fulfillment in the creative process. She tells a series of only vaguely related anecdotes from her life with Fred, before him, and after him. Each in poetic language that is accessible and moving. She draws connections between arctic explorers and television cop shows and French writers that make sense of her widely varied interests.
She visits the graves of writers who have influenced her art: Jean Genet, the Brontes, Sylvia Plath and Rimbaud, and records them with her trusty Polaroid camera. She travels the world as a guest speaker, thinker, poet and celebrity, but isn’t impressed with herself the way others seem to be. She simply does what she wants to do and finds meaning in that.
She also drinks a lot of coffee, and “M Train” is also about her relationship with a series of coffeehouses she haunts to write in her notebooks and share and explore the world. This is a beautiful book, though it may take some patience on the reader’s part: “Who lives like this?” I asked myself at several times throughout the book, thinking her life unmoored. And yet, I found myself fantasizing about how lovely it would be to live out whatever whim or far-flung idea pops into your head.
As emotionally raw and honest as “M Train” is, “Just Kids” is that and more. I checked out this audiobook before I had even finished “M Train” because I didn’t want my little affair with Smith to end.
“Just Kids” is Smith’s first memoir and won the 2010 National Book Award for biography. It’s the story of her life with and love for the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Getting to know the young Mapplethorpe this way, and knowing what brought him to the attention of the nation, it’s hard to believe there was a time he was a shy young boy who didn’t know he was a homosexual. He and Smith fell in love hard, living a hand-to-mouth existence and devoting their lives to art, and finding their voices and identities.
Smith doesn’t sugarcoat anything and nothing is off limits. Hey, it was the 1970s and it’s told almost 50 years later by someone who has long since cared about explaining herself. It’s enthralling and inspiring.
The stories of the people who were in the circle of her life — Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Candy Darling, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed — are included not to be gossipy, but to color and flesh out the life she lived. That everyone comes across as good I credit to Smith’s spirit, which breathes life into every page of this book.
For example: Smith met Allen Ginsberg while buying a cheese sandwich from a machine at a laundromat. She scraped up the money she needed only to discover the price had been raised and she was a dime short. Ginsberg, who happened to be there, offered her the dime and sat down with her and they talked about poetry. After a few minutes, Ginsberg stopped: “Are you a girl?” he asked, surprised. “Is that a problem?” she responded. “I’m sorry, I took you for a very pretty boy,” he said, laughing. “Do I need to give you back the sandwich?” she asked. He smiled and said no. Years later, Ginsberg and Smith had become friends and he asked her what she says when people ask her how they met. She says, “I tell them that when I was hungry, you fed me.”
Someone with a lesser heart would tell a different story.
The love story at the center of this book is tragic in the truest sense of the word: Two people who love each other completely but can’t be together because of who they are. As they drift apart, you can hear her heart break, and when they reunite, with him in a hospital bed dying of aids, well you can almost feel your own do the same.
Smith reads these books herself on the audiobooks with almost no emotion; it’s not an affectation, it just seems to be who she is. It’s also charming to hear how she mispronounces words — “yella” for “yellow” and “drawling” for “drawing.” It’s worth it to hear her tell her own story, but I’ve turned to the book many times to remember the way she turns a phrase. It’s a masterclass in writing.
There’s much more to read by her, including, last year, her first fiction book, and at least one more memoir. And then there’s all her poetry to get to. Can’t wait.