How Patti Smith, Punk Chanteuse, Became the Irresistible Siren of Middle Age

How Patti Smith, Punk Chanteuse, Became the Irresistible Siren of Middle Age

How Patti Smith, Punk Chanteuse, Became the Irresistible Siren of Middle Age

Her latest memoir, M Train, feels guided simultaneously by determination and serendipity.

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A girl grows up in a working-class family in New Jersey, the eldest of four children. Her mother is a waitress, her father works nights. The girl collects things, pebbles, marbles, charms—things that speak to her because of where she found them. She reads a lot of books. At the Philadelphia bus depot, she finds a book called Illuminations, which she pockets because she was attracted to the author’s face. Why was a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations waiting for her at the bus depot?

In 1967, when she drops out of college and moves to Brooklyn, she meets a beautiful boy. Like her, he feels destined to be an artist. But while she draws a little, writes a little, occasionally sings, the boy is focused, convinced that their artistic yearnings are not childish dreams. The boy and the girl promise always to take care of each other. She keeps a lock of his hair, a box of letters, a goatskin tambourine, a vial of his ashes.

“In 1978 I came into a little money and was able to pay a security deposit toward the lease of a one-story building on East Tenth Street,” writes Patti Smith in M Train, the sequel to her National Book Award–­winning memoir Just Kids. She doesn’t say so, but she came into a little money because in 1978 her song “Because the Night” (written with Bruce Springsteen and produced by Jimmy Iovine) became a hit single. Smith’s first album, the groundbreaking Horses, had appeared in 1975: Its now-iconic cover image—Smith with a black jacket tossed over her shoulder, Sinatra-style—was shot by the boy who grew up to be the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The girl who found Rimbaud in the bus depot grew up to be named a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

Like Patti Smith’s life, M Train feels guided simultaneously by determination and serendipity. It’s hard to gauge Smith’s attitude when she says that in 1978 she “came into a little money,” but I don’t think she means to be coy. She knows who she became, and she knows that we know. But she’s not very interested in talking about that person. Mostly she’s interested in things—little talismanic things and, by extension, other things, other people. This is what makes her previous memoir, Just Kids, so poignant, so lacking in the narcissism endemic even to the best of memoirs: The story of her life is indescribable except inasmuch as it is also Mapplethorpe’s story. “When I look at it now,” says Smith of the cover of Horses, “I never see me. I see us.”

M Train perpetuates this method, except that the cast of characters is much larger, each chapter set in motion by a little Proustian moment that provokes an unpredictable chain of memory and observation, one thing talking to another. To the degree that we’re led to imagine the life of the book’s author, that life feels familiar, even ordinary, the life of a woman who was once a dreamy little girl in New Jersey. But simultaneously, the life feels exotic, extraordinary, the life of a woman who has visited places and seen things that, without her having written about them, we would never imagine.

She looks around a room. What does she see?

Things beyond socks or glasses: Kevin Shields’s EBow, a snapshot of a sleepy-faced Fred, a Burmese offering bowl, Margot Fonteyn’s ballet slippers, a misshapen clay giraffe formed by my daughter’s hands. I pause before my father’s chair.

Reading these sentences, we feel Smith pause at the chair because her syntax shifts: The first person enters, followed by the first active verb—I pause. Prior to this moment, things have followed one another as if of their own accord. Now the mind enters the proceedings, but the syntax returns to the same kind of list-like accumulation of things:

My father sat at his desk, in this chair, for decades, writing checks, filling out tax forms, and working fervently on his own system for handicapping horses. Bundles of The Morning Telegraph were stacked against the wall. A journal wrapped in jeweler’s cloth, noting wins and losses from imaginary bets, kept in the left-hand drawer.

Parallel phrases tumble on top of each other (“writing checks,” “filling out tax forms,” “working fervently”); then active verbs fall away again, allowing noun phrases to nestle side by side as if they were themselves the things she is no longer observing in the room around her but remembering from the past (“Bundles of The Morning Telegraph”; “A journal wrapped in jeweler’s cloth”).

Then the mind returns: “When he died I inherited his desk and chair.” But not for long:

Inside the desk was a cigar box containing canceled checks, nail clippers, a broken Timex watch, and a yellowed newspaper cutting of my beaming self in 1959, being awarded third prize in a national safety-poster contest.

This is how the life of Patti Smith enters the world of M Train, which is always on the move: not as narrated event (in 1959, I was awarded third prize; in 1978, I had a hit single), but as the by-product of her animating dialogue with the things that bear the lives of people she loves, people she’s lost: her parents, her brother, her husband; Jean Genet, Sylvia Plath, Enid Meadowcroft (author of The Story of Davy Crockett). The conversation is at turns poignant, whimsical, stern, but it is always deeply respectful of the otherness of things, and, as a result, it is seductively dry-eyed, especially at its moments of greatest emotional intensity. “You should sit on me,” says her father’s chair to her, but Smith can’t bring herself to do so: “We were never allowed to sit at my father’s desk, so I don’t use his chair, just keep it near.”

Smith the writer is well-known as both a musician and a visual artist, but writing has always lain at the center of her achievement; her songs contain words, sometimes lots of words, and her drawings are often made of words, long strings of minuscule, almost indecipherable script. But it’s one thing to write a great rock-and-roll lyric and another thing to write a book like M Train. The line “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom,” from Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti,” is a great line in a song, but would you describe it as great writing? Context is all. Coming at the end of King Lear, the line “Never, never, never, never, never” is one of the most thrilling pentameters that Shakespeare ever wrote, but outside of the context of the play, how would you say it’s any good? On Horses, in the middle of her revved-up cover of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” Smith shouts, “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud!” When I first listened to the song in 1975, I thought she was saying, “Go ram bow, go ram bow.” That was enough.

Throughout the later ’70s, Smith often opened her concerts by reciting a prose-poem called “Babelogue”; her album Easter, released in 1978, features a recording of her reciting the poem over Lenny Kaye’s guitar, and the poem also appears in Babel, a book published in the same year:

i haven’t fucked w/ the past but i’ve fucked plenty w/ the future. over the silk of skin are scars from the splinters of stages and walls i’ve caressed. each bolt of wood, like the log of helen, was my pleasure. i would measure the success of a night by the amount of piss and seed i could exude over the columns that nestled the P/A. some nights i’d surprise everybody by snapping on a skirt of green net sewed over w/ flat metallic circles which dangled and flashed. the lights were violet and white.

What kind of writing is this? Like a lot of people, I can attest to the fact that listening to Smith recite this poem was completely thrilling. In the fall of 1978, after witnessing a focused yet almost chaotic performance in Hartford, Connecticut, I attended a concert a week later in Providence, Rhode Island, a concert in which Smith became so dissatisfied with her own performance that she stopped the band and walked off the stage. This also was thrilling. Especially if you were a kid with artistic yearnings, she gave you permission to fail, and to do it in public, without apology.

But Smith’s early poetry, made for performance, is a different kind of writing than the kind she’s offering in her recent memoirs or the kind that distinguishes the lyrics of her 2012 album Banga (which strikes this fan of four decades as one of her best). And while the prose of M Train is a distinguished achievement in itself, I’m also moved by the way in which, over the decades, Smith has become scrupulously attentive to the demands that context makes on the act of writing. Most rock-and-roll singers who write books do not write crafted sentences, even though they’ve written brilliant song lyrics; most visual artists do not write books at all. The opening line of the Rolling Stones’s “Honky Tonk Women” (“I met a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis”) is an iambic-pentameter line, one whose rhythm Shakespeare might have coveted, but nobody would expect Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to write King Lear.

You can witness the unapologetic Smith in the act of becoming the writer she is today in a little memoir (first published by a small press in 1992 and reissued by New Directions in 2011) called Woolgathering. At first, its sentences sound more like Babel than M Train, more like sentences to be performed out loud than savored in private:

The cruel intensity of this process can produce a thing of beauty but oftentimes just a tear in the shimmering from which to wrest and wriggle. A spine of rope sliding an arena more remote and dazzling than ever.

But as you turn the pages of Woolgathering, you can feel the sentences change to the degree that Smith attempts not to embody her thinking in a verbal stream of consciousness but to describe a sequence of things that provoke her thinking.

This is an account of the last day she spent with a beloved dog named Bambi:

It was in my mind to take her to all the places we loved. We would take one last walk to Red Clay Mountain and stop awhile by Rainbow Creek. I had a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in wax paper and some dog biscuits. I sat with Bambi at my feet and surveyed my domain. She would not eat her treats. She knows, I thought.

Here, Smith hasn’t yet figured out how to make her syntax itself embody the accumulation of telltale things, as she does so effortlessly in M Train, but that impulse is nonetheless driving the prose: peanut butter sandwich, Rainbow Creek, Red Clay Mountain. The author of M Train wouldn’t need to say, “It was in my mind to take her to all the places we loved,” but you would understand this palpably to be the case.

Unlike Woolgathering, M Train is written from a perspective that feels posthumous. After the release of the album Wave in 1979, Smith moved to Detroit with her new husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith (the guitarist from the MC5). For a decade, they raised two children, they refurbished a boat; there was a scraggly pear tree in the yard. Then Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989. Fred Smith died unexpectedly of a heart attack five years later, her brother of a stroke just a month after that, and in 1996 Smith moved back to New York. She began recording and exhibiting regularly again; it was a productive, grief-fueled time.

“Now I have no trees,” says Smith of her present self in M Train; “there is no crib or clothesline.” At moments like this, she sounds like almost any devoted parent in late middle age. And much of M Train is given over to accounts of the little rituals in the daily life of a woman living alone in the Village; if she finds someone sitting at her favorite table in her favorite café, a café whose closing she mourns throughout the book, she waits in the bathroom until the interloper leaves.

She also waits for something to come her way, and because Smith is not just any woman living in the Village, things come: an invitation to address a meeting of the Continental Drift Club in Berlin, an invitation to speak at the home of Frida Kahlo. But in Berlin, she is ridiculed (“This isn’t science, it’s poetry!”), and in Mexico, she falls violently ill. Travel, as the title of M Train suggests, is what Smith lives for, but M stands for mental: mental travel, mental train.

She drinks a cup of coffee. She remembers her mother brewing coffee in a percolator, waiting by the stove in her blue-flowered housecoat. In Detroit, because there were no nearby cafés, Smith brewed coffee too. But on Saturday mornings, she would walk to the local 7-Eleven for a large black coffee and a glazed doughnut. Then she would sit behind a little whitewashed bait-and-tackle shop:

To me it looked like Tangier, though I had never been there. I sat on the ground in the corner surrounded by low white walls, shelving real time, free to rove the smooth bridge connecting past and present. My Morocco. I followed whatever train I wanted. I wrote without writing—of genies and hustlers and mythic travelers, my vagabondia. Then I would walk back home, happily satisfied, and resume my daily tasks. Even now, having at last been to Tangier, my spot behind the bait store seems the true Morocco in my memory.

Coffee, her mother, Michigan, Morocco: Smith cherishes the dependably stable space she’s crafted for herself in the Village, but her mind is always on the move. “By the time I got back to New York I had forgotten why I’d left,” she says of the trip to Berlin, and the mental itineraries of M Train feel similarly linear, one thing leading inevitably to another thing, each one lovingly fondled, cataloged, preserved. Then it’s time to feed the cats, time to brew the coffee.

Some things, however, are too painful. She opens her desk. She removes a small metal box: three fishing lures, one made of purple transparent rubber, like a Juicy Fruit. “Hello, Curly,” she says to the lure, speaking to the object that speaks to her, remembering how she and Fred would go fishing on Lake Ann in northern Michigan, how Fred taught her to cast, how he gave her “a portable Shakespeare rod whose parts fit like arrows in a carrying case shaped like a quiver.” The satisfaction Smith takes in describing the rod, word by word, feels like the satisfaction she took in putting it together, taking it apart. “We want things we cannot have,” she laments, and out tumble more things:

I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.

Once again, the power of this passage is due not to the wisdom as such but to its nearly verbless, list-like accumulation of things, the rhythm progressing from punchy pairs of monosyllabic words (“Hands small, feet swift”) to the slight lilt of words containing unstressed syllables (“Everything changes”) to the amplitude of a completed clause (“Please stay forever, I say to the things I know”), before returning to the punchy, two-beat rhythm with which it began: “Don’t go. Don’t grow.” This writing is moving because it moves.

When I was a teenager in the ’70s, Patti Smith showed me a way of being serious about art that didn’t feel incompatible with being a teenager. Because of her, I read Rimbaud: The big doors to the barn stood open and ready. Never did I imagine that Patti Smith would continue to show me how a life might profitably be lived four decades later. The punk chanteuse has become the irresistible siren of middle age, and she has done so not by surviving but by refusing to settle for the glamour of past accomplishment. Except for what she will do next, M Train is the most beautiful thing she’s ever made.

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