Music of Books: M Train by Patti Smith

Although I’m a huge fan of musicians with a gift for the poetic, I was fairly unfamiliar with Patti Smith. I had heard that she was an incredible memoirist and took a look around at Powell’s for her work. Instead of choosing the National Book Award winning, Just Kids, I turned to her latest, M Train (2015), and found a meditation in it on the French writer Jean Genet that interested me and kept on reading. Here’s some things that stood out to me in the book.

Coffee Junky

Smith has a cup of joe at least every other page of M Train. In 1971, she set off to Mexico to write a book called Java Head in the great tradition of literary quests in search of a fix. As there wasn’t a plethora of knowledgeable baristas back then, she did the next logical thing and asked William S. Burroughs where to hit up the good stuff. The old master pointed her to the mountains of Veracruz. Smith spent days on a coffee bender winning over the caballeros only crowd with her enthusiasm about the bean and a caffeinated exegesis on Bach. Java Head was never written, but a habit was solidified that was much more healthy than what her rocker contemporaries were rolling at the time.

Checkmate, Bobby Fischer

In one of the stranger moments of the book, Smith is on a trip in Iceland and is invited to photograph the table that Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played chess on in 1972. She then receives an invite from Fischer himself, who was given asylum there, which is quite a bizarre story on its own. Her description of the meeting with the controversial former champion is an example of how to deal with difficult people that we could all learn from these days.

“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 he finally 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.”

Getting comfortable

Patti Smith not only gets asked to take polaroids of famous furniture, she also gets to try them out for herself. Roberto Bolaño’s writing chair in Blanes, Spain, Friedrich Schiller’s table and Diego Rivera’s bed when she get’s sick on a visit to the Casa Azul in the Cayoacán borough of Mexico City. Not all of us get the opportunity to convalesce at the house where Frida Kahlo was born and died, but Smith makes it count, writing, “I got up and put on my boots and gathered my pictures: the outline of Frida’s crutches, her bed, and the ghost of a stairwell. The atmosphere of sickness glowed within them.”

Magic and Loss

Ostensibly, M Train is a travelogue of Patti Smith’s journeys, interspersed with memories of her childhood in Michigan, relationship with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, and the devastation of her house by Hurricane Sandy. What is remarkable is that the biographical details are overshadowed by the exploration of loss tempered by immense curiosity that she is conducting through writing. From imagined conversations with a Sam Shepardesque cowpoke to ruminations on the detective shows she watches in hotel rooms on tour, we get a storyteller who values the riddle more than the answer. For every memory of a lost loved one or visit to the grave of an artist who influenced her, Smith leaves inventive verbal altars and dozens of polaroid photos scattered through the pages. She starts the book with, “It’s not easy writing about nothing,” but appears to effortlessly construct lines such as, “Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.” For all the places Smith goes and the people she meets, M Train is really about the famous singer songwriter sitting in her favorite cafe alone, comfortable with letting us look at what she is working on.

Are you missing Patti Smith’s music? Here’s a great live version of “Ask the Angels” from her 1976 album Radio Ethiopia.