Patti Smith: M Train (Knopf)

Patti Smith: M Train (Knopf)

Smith's previous book, Just Kids (winner of the National Book Award in 2010), was straightforward biography and much loved by fans of the '70s downtown NYC music scene for its insight into her development into one of the major figures of the punk movement. M Train is also autobiographical, but has a quite different effect, reflecting, one could say, the fact that she was a writer before she was a rock 'n' roller -- and hey, the French Ministry of Culture named Smith a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest artist honor of the French Republic, two years before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

M Train is unconcerned with her music career (though her tastes in music are occasionally alluded to); instead, it bounces among what she's reading and her literary influences, her trips to various points on the globe as either a literary celebrity or a fan paying homage to her lit heroes, musings on her favorite TV series, recountings of her dreams, vignettes from her life with her deceased husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and time spent in cafes and buying/renovating a house in the Rockaways. Much of it is documented with artily artless photos. 

This may seem more mundane than Just Kids, but her writing style is such that she makes it riveting, and I frequently found myself feeling the mood reminiscent of Sartre's Nausea (though minus the poverty and disillusion): a minutely examined, intensely detailed peek into someone's mind, his/her personality partly defined by the surrounding culture, partly by one's approach to the minutia of daily existence, and frequently by the consumption of coffee.

That is not to say that there are no moments of high celebrity. One of the funniest is when she meets chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer:

When I returned I received a call from a man identifying himself as Bobby Fischer’s bodyguard. He had been charged with arranging a midnight meeting between Mr. Fischer and myself in the closed dining room of the Hótel Borg. I was to bring my bodyguard, and would not be permitted to bring up the subject of chess. I consented to the meeting and then crossed the square to the Club NASA where I recruited their head technician, a trustworthy fellow called Skills, to stand as my so-called bodyguard. Bobby Fischer arrived at midnight in a dark hooded parka. Skills also wore a hooded parka. Bobby’s bodyguard towered over us all. He waited with Skills outside the dining room. Bobby chose a corner table and we sat face-to-face. He began testing me immediately by issuing a string of obscene and racially repellent references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants.

—Look, you’re wasting your time, I said. I can be just as repellent as you, only about different subjects. He sat staring at me in silence, when finally he dropped his hood.
—Do you know any Buddy Holly songs? he asked.

For the next few hours we sat there singing songs. Sometimes separately, often together, remembering about half the lyrics. At one point he attempted a chorus of "Big Girls Don’t Cry" in falsetto and his bodyguard burst in excitedly.

—Is everything all right, sir?
—Yes, Bobby said.
—I thought I heard something strange.
—I was singing.

—Singing?
—Yes, singing.

These interludes, though, are far from the heart of the book. They are perhaps little treats she sprinkles through the pages as rewards for our continued attention, but fans of evocative writing will find her less starry passages just as compelling:

There were red rosebuds in a small vase in the bathroom at 'Ino. I draped my coat over the empty chair across from me, and then spent much of the next hour drinking coffee and filling pages of my notebook with drawings of single-celled animals and various species of plankton. It was strangely comforting, for I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father's desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore of this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colors, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory. Such things that disappear in time that we find ourselves longing to see again. We search for them in close-up, as we search for our hands in a dream.

And:

Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen. Have you seen my coat? It is black and absent of detail, with frayed sleeves and a tattered hem. Have you seen my coat? It s the dead speak coat.

And, when the Smiths were in French Guiana and their driver got pulled over at a military checkpoint and there turned out to be a person in the trunk of the car:

Fred was ordered into the commander's office. He turned and looked at me. Stay calm was the message telegraphed from his pale blue eyes.

...I could see Fred's profile. After a time they all came out. They seemed in amiable spirits. The commander gave Fred a manly embrace and we were placed in a private car.... We were dropped off at the foot of a hill, the end of the line....

—What did you two talk about? I asked.

—I really can't say for sure, he only spoke French.

—How did you communicate?

—Cognac.

Of course, excerpts cannot fully convey the flavor of the book, its dream-like rhythms. These must be experienced sequentially. I highly recommend that you do so. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was releaseby MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.

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