M Train by Patti Smith
Back in 2005, my brother and I went to see Patti Smith perform her seminal album “Horses” at the Royal Festival Hall for its 30th anniversary (supported by John Cale – that was some night!) I was one of the people entitled to wear the “Horses changed my life” t-shirts they were selling, as indeed it did. I purchased a copy from the Virgin shop at Marble Arch in 1975 on its release (as the little town I lived in didn’t have anywhere that would sell such things); and I’d never heard anything like it. Music and poetry fused in a way like never before, and it was truly mind-blowing.
Smith has been one of the constants in my life; I bought all her records, tracked down her rare poetry pamphlets and books, have seen her live several times (usually with my brother in tow!) and I think I’ll always listen to her music. However, it’s worth recalling that she started her career as a visual artist and a poet, only stumbling into music by accident, and I’ve read her books with pleasure over the years. So the announcement of a new work by her last year, “M Train” was occasion for great celebration.
The book has gone on to be lauded and win awards, so it went straight onto my Christmas wishlist, and duly arrived, along with her Collected Lyrics. I decided I needed a little change after all the Europeans recently, and so Patti seemed the one to pick up.
The book takes its title from one of the trains which actually runs through Smith’s home city, New York; however, in an interview I saw on YouTube, she stated that the title actually refers more to her memory train of thought (and I’ve also seen her describe it as a Mind Train that you can get off at any stop you want). The book is indeed a rich collage of dreams, memories and events from her current life, liberally illustrated with her trademark Polaroids, and it’s a real joy to read.
I’ve always felt an affinity with Smith; I recognise in her my tendency to obsession with writers and musicians and artists, my love of simple everyday rituals and my need for some solitude and space. And the book weaves in and out of Smith’s life, as she sits in her favourite Cafe ‘Ino, drinking coffee, eating brown toast and olive oil, and musing. She recalls different events and people from her past, tells of her travels round the world and mourns the losses she’s suffered. The parts of the book where Smith tells of her married life and the loss of her husband Fred are almost unbearably poignant and I found them hard to read.
I had read it some time ago but was so completely immersed that I retained nothing. This has been an intermittent, lifelong enigma. Through early adolescence I sat and read for hours in a small grove of weed trees near the railroad track in Germantown… I would enter a book wholeheartedly and sometimes venture so deeply it was as if I were living within it. I finished many books in such a manner there, closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content by the time I returned home. This disturbed me but I kept this strange affliction to myself. I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember.
But so much of the book covers the art of creation, and writing in particular. Smith’s literary passions are wide-ranging, stretching from the Beats and Jean Genet to encompass writers like Bruno Schulz, Hermann Hesse, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Yukio Mishima. In fact, one of the dangers of reading any book that mentions other books is the effect on your TBR, having you rush off to search out copies of interesting sounding works. With Smith it’s different; as so many of the books she reads and loves are ones which I read and love too, much time was spent rushing off to pull beloved volumes off the shelf, and in fact I managed to get through M Train and only make two purchases!
Much of her life nowadays is spent roaming the globe in search of talismans to photograph – the grave of Sylvia Plath; the typewriter of Hermann Hesse; the walking stick of Virginia Woolf; the bear of Leo Tolstoy. These items are invested with a significance for Smith, representing something of the spirit of the authors she loves. In particular, she feels a strong bond with artist Frida Kahlo and, when taken ill while visiting her home, rests on her bed and communes with her spirit. However she also has a rather unlikely addiction for TV crime shows, ranging from “Midsomer Murders” to more modern shows like “The Killing” – which I wouldn’t have expected!
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.
Patti Smith is an inspirational artist and never a dull writer; in fact, I loved this book so much I never wanted it to end. Her life has not been an easy one, with the loss of her husband, brother Todd and old flame Robert Mapplethorpe informing much of the narrative. Yet she’s resilient, always bouncing back and remaining optimistic. She has the misfortune to buy a small property on Rockaway Beach just before it’s hit by Hurricane Sandy; but despite this, the book ends on a positive note with her watching the gradual rebuilding of the house which will become a home for this wonderful woman.
I’m doing well with my reading this year; in fact, several are already jockeying for the number one position, and this book will be one of them. I reached the end of my exhilarating and emotional ride on Patti’s M(emory) Train rather breathless and completely inspired. In fact, I’m quite keen to go back to her earlier works to start dipping in and rediscovering….
Just in case anyone was wondering which books it was I was impelled to buy, here they are! :)