Van Morrison, a slightly squat teen rocker from Belfast broke into the top-40 airwaves by owning this song with a howl unlike anything heard by white pop singers before 1964.
Then 10 years later Patti Smith turned it inside out, reshaping it with her own lyrics—a woman in a man’s world, belting it out, a primal scream at one moment, then an incantation—her words folded into and subsuming the original: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine….My sins my own/They belong to me.”
It wasn’t a rip off, but an Irish lament filtered through New York punk, and even more astonishing, it was sung by a woman.
It was not a rejection of the Irish master, but a reimagining; and, finally, homage.
And that is much of what Smith’s latest book M Train is an homage to the many writers she reveres—mostly men, and none more than her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith of the legendary MC5, musicians.
This is a book about what it means now to be a writer. It goes without saying that Smith is hands-down the finest prose writer of the rock and roll world from which she emerged with the breakthrough Horses album in 1975.
M Train stands both for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains she rides from the Village, to the house she rehabs in Rockaway as well as the ride through her memories she invites us to follow her on.
While the Just Kids was about Smith growing into an artist alongside lover and pal Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is the mature artist, looking back at all she has loved and lost while still approaching life with the wonder of a child—as she says forever believing in “that lighthearted balloon, the world.”
Smith has said that Just Friends took a lot out of her. Mapplethorpe had asked her to write about him so that he wouldn’t be forgotten, and it took her nearly 20 years to get it just right. This time around, she said, she would write a book about nothing. But that was easier said than done.
“It’s a lot easier to talk about nothing,” she says in the opening where she introduces the cowboy muse that reappears throughout the book, but “it’s not so easy writing about nothing.”
In the process, she writes her book about what it means to be a writer and a reader in the world.
One struggles to think of a memoir that seems so true, that doesn’t fetishize the past, but looks for touchstones in the present, the things of permanence. Smith is an explorer—“I believe in movement”— and in this sense she resembles Graham Greene, another writer who could never settle down and whose journeys fed his work.
“I cross the sea,” she says “with the sole aim to possess within a single image the straw hat of Robert Graves, typewriter of Hesse, spectacles of Beckett… What I have lost and cannot find I remember.”
The book, and her journey within the book, is interspersed with Polaroid photos of the places and people she has loved and lost and have inspired her as a writer: A picture of her late husband Fred waving goodbye from the door to their home in Lake Ann, Michigan. Hermann Hesse’s typewriter in Montagnola, Switzerland. Herself with writer Paul Bowles shortly before his death in Tangier. A copy of Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle next to a coffee cup in her beloved sanctuary, Café ’Ino in the Village—the victim of rent inflation in a city that may finally be all financiers and no culture.
They are not technically good photos. Why Polaroids? Her lover-friend Mapplethorpe was a master of technique—his prints flawless in their hyper-realism. She would never want to compete with him. Perhaps it is the immutability of Polaroids. There is no artifice, no possibility for manipulation. Café ’Ino is no more, but the rawness of Smith’s black and white image remains.
Her face in the shadow at Genet’s illuminated grave in Larache Christian Cemetery in Tangier is the end of the journey she started with her husband years earlier with their honeymoon trip to Devil’s Island in French Guiana where the newlyweds picked up stones from the site that inspired Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal.
She and Fred had meant to place the stones together on Genet’s grave, but life and family intervened. This was her chance to fulfill that goal. (The next book, she says, will be about her husband Fred and brother and road manager Todd, whose deaths were only a month apart.) She laments the loss of a camera she has left on an MTA bus that contained shots of her dream house in Rockaway. Who would be looking at them now?
But this isn’t a book primarily about the past. It is about the quotidian life of the writer, a writer who incidentally (as she would have it) has a day job making music and touring the world with her band. In the present, she spends mornings at coffee shops and offers to stake Zak, a friend who plans to open a café in Rockaway.
He tells her she would be guaranteed free coffee for life. But what does that really mean? Zak sets up his cozy café near the wharf in Rockaway and Smith becomes so enamored by the setting that she finds a nearby fixer-upper to buy.
The For Sale by Owner sign, she says, beckoned her like the sign in Steppenwolf: “EntranceNot for Everybody. For Madmen Only.” She envisions it as “a place to think, make spaghetti, brew coffee, a place to write.”
The owner of the boarded up house—she calls it her Alamo in remembrance of the Lincoln Log forts she and her brother, both Davy Crockett fans, as played by Fess Parker, built—wants cash and Smith tells her that she’ll have it within three months.
Time to tour.
Throughout the summer of 2012 her calendar is filled with readings, performances, concerts, lectures in Brighton, Leeds, Glasgow, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin. At night she would work on an introduction to a monograph on William Blake, and later a preface to All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release.
By September, she returns to Rockaway to consummate the deal on her house, in which she envisions a great room with skylights, a country sink, a desk, some books.
This book is resonant with concrete images and the sanctity in things, objects that breathe with meaning for Smith—Virginia Woolf’s cane, Roberto Bolaño’s chair. In early October, she closes the deal on her house. Then, on October 28, Hurricane Sandy strikes and wipes out the boardwalk, scores of houses, Zak’s newly opened café. But, Smith says, though severely damaged “my Alamo had survived the first great storm of the twenty-first century.”
We are left hoping she will one day be able to live in it.
The book is a celebration, not a lament, and it is full of humorous episodes, not least of which is the extended tale of her membership in the semi-secretive Continental Drift Club, whose members pay tribute to explorer Alfred Wegener who asserted a hundred years ago that the continents are in continual movement around the earth.
His ideas were considered crackpot until plate tectonics in the 1950s proved him right. Smith was slated to give a lecture to a meeting of the group in Berlin and was understandably apprehensive since many of the members were either scientists or Wegener buffs. She had found a backdoor to membership after sending letters to the club asking to be allowed to photograph Wegener’s boots.
Dead now for more than 20 years, Fred Smith was her greatest love, and she recalls the rich humor he brought to their daily lives. In Detroit they frequented the Arcade Bar where he would drink beer and she her ever-ubiquitous cup of coffee (she calls it her drug of choice). Here they dreamed up a cable TV show they would produce. Fred’s show would be called Drunk in the Afternoon, during which he would interview celebrity guests while sharing fine cognac out of a paper bag.
Her segment would be Coffee Break, and in it she would invite viewers to have a cup of Nescafé with her. The idea was that Nescafé would sponsor the show. The show never happened, but they had a son and daughter, Fred took up flying lessons, and Patti “wrote incessantly but published nothing.” But this must have been the incubus for her writing.
“You write out of what you admire,” Susan Sontag said, and this funny, compassionate, poetic book invites us to ride along with a writer who treasures all that life has offered her and especially books and their authors. About her immersion in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, she says after finishing it she had to immediately reread it because “I did not wish to exit its atmosphere.” The same can be said of M Train. You don’t want the ride to stop.
This is a beautifully written book. She says that she doesn’t know if readers will find resonance with the places and people she has described, but perhaps in the end they will at least be more familiar with her. She says: “I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions.”
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