Patti Smith was a punk icon in the Seventies. Her most famous album Horses came out in 1975 and if you want to see her at her peak, have a look at her You tube clip (below) from 1979 where she is singing Gloria to a mad-for-her German audience. She has the androgynous beauty and supple movement of boy dressed as girl. She is challenging, fascinating. I of course missed her (like so many other things), being more interested in Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and Queen. Smith was indeed at a highpoint of her life at that time. Her career was flying and she had just met her great love, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, and was about to spend what seem to be the happiest fourteen years of her life in a quiet little suburban backwater with Smith and their two children.
Smith won the National Book Award for Non Fiction in 2010 for her book about her early life with Robert Mapplethorpe Just Kids. They were friends, lovers, then best friends again as Mapplethorpe became exclusively gay. She stuck by him as he was dying of AIDS and wrote Just Kids more or less at his request. He also took many famous photographs of her, but more than that he was a strong influence on her . She says she owes Mapplethorpe, ‘the context of my life,’ that is the ambition to live the life of the artist whatever the cost.But long before she met him she had fallen in love with a shoplifted copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations.Mapplethorpe was no reader.
Having this vague knowledge of Patti Smith I was interested to read M Train, a book not about the subway, but about her, the ‘Me train’ I suppose. And this is a deeply internal and honest book. In the first few pages Smith recounts a dream (she always records and ponders over her dreams) in which a cowpoke says, ‘It’s not so easy writing about nothing.’ And I guess this is about Smith’s intention to be honest and open and write about what comes up, as is her daily practice. Of course one can’t help but think of the inimitable Seinfeld ‘show about nothing’, and the glorious narcissistic chaos that comes out of that.
I hadn’t been reading long when I realized that Smith is very much an introvert and the life she chooses to live is quite isolated. She has people in her life she seeks out from time to time, but her life is largely devoted to reading and writing. She has cats, she goes to a regular café to have her black coffee and spend the day writing, but her main relaxation seems to be the crime shows she watches every day on TV. She lives a simple, for the most part, abstemious life. She dresses in the same boots and jeans she has for many years, occasionally she has a drop of mescal when she wants to celebrate at New Year, but mostly she is alone with her notebooks and her favourite authors. These favourites are almost all male outsider poets, Rimbaud, Genet, Mrabet, Mishima, and Paul Bowles, and later she falls in love with Murakami and Sebald. She falls madly for these writers. When she discovers Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she reads and reads it, and dreams of going to the site of the story to find that particular well. Then sadly she loses that tattered beloved book, left in a rest room somewhere on her travels. She also loves the Beats, speaks of Ginsberg and Burroughs as mentors. Strange indeed. To me these are cold, self-involved, misogynistic men, but to her they are beloved friends. This is never really explained, although it is clear that Smith is an autodidact and literature is for her the most precious form of art.
But her book is more than this. It recounts stories of her travel in French Guiana with Fred, to Japan visiting the grave of Mishima, and to Morocco to lay stones on the grave of Genet. These small rituals are as important to her as the taking of polaroid photos of sites and occasions that have significance for her. Her life has its own boundaries and requirements.
Often she recounts stories of these journeys, but sometimes her register changes and she allows herself some poetic moments. They don’t always work, but when they do they are deeply moving,
We seek to stay present, even as ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering towards paradise , releasing the thread…
And a little later:
When my children were young I contrived such vessels. I set them to sail, though I didn’t board them. I rarely left the perimeter of our home. I said my prayers in the night by the canal draped by ancient longhaired willows. The things I touched were living. My husband’s fingers, a dandelion, a skinned knee.
Patti Smith has had her moments of fame, but countering those are deep periods of loss. She is brave and honest and in some way indomitable:
I believe in movement. I believe in the lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose.
To see the current self-deprecating shy Patti Smith have a look at this interview with Democracy Now:
To see her in her heyday go here: