My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery.
As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
I just finished reading M Train, the newest book by Smith. This was my latest read after Just Kids, Woolgathering, and close to 100 articles and interviews on her, some of which were published in conjunction with her very successful press junket for M Train. If you like books tied up neatly with a chronological flow of events, this book is probably not for you. However, if you appreciate how life is infused with random, meaningful, and meaningless events that somehow relate on personal, worldly, and intellectual levels, you will love M Train.
Above all, I think that Smith has always attempted to capture aspects of life that cannot be truly captured – the ephemeral, ever-fleeting passage of time with all the souls that have passed through it. For the last 40 years, she has been doing just that – ever so eloquently – in music, poetry, literature, and photography. She seeks out places and people seemingly frozen in time, giving voice to intellects and geniuses that came before her – those that have infused her own life with deep connectivity to the world. The ghosts of Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, and others haunt the pages in a beautiful, ethereal quilt that Smith weaves.
Throughout the pages, there are themes that tie everything together, but the door on each journey stays open just a crack. Smith, like so many inquisitive, intellectual artists who feel deeply, is seeking some type of continuity in her life and the world as a whole. The nuanced, poetic train ride she takes us on is fueled by endless cups of coffee which she seemingly can drink in abundance without the caffeine effect that would make most of us wide-eyed insomniacs.
Recurring themes include a symbolic cowboy, journeys both afar and in the recesses of Smith’s memory, and the fleeting nature of time. She gives eloquent voice to the retrieval or permanent loss of disappearing objects and souls – a copy of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, an ill-fitting Comme Des Garcons overcoat gifted by a poet on her 57th birthday, a moleskin journal, Café ’Ino, and those near and dear to her. Many pages have words that are so poetically beautiful that if extracted, they would fill several chapters or provide lyrics for an entire new Patti Smith album. She has a keen visual eye that is evident in her lyrics and prose, so even without the beautiful Polaroid images, words spring to life visually. This is among my favorites passages:
Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling along the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle. A black dog on a strip of beach, Fred standing in the shadows of mangy palms flanking the entrance to Saint-Laurent Prison, the blue-and-yellow Gitane matchbox wrapped in his handkerchief, and Jackson racing ahead, searching for his father in the pale sky.
This book above all is about loss, the ephemeral nature of the world around us, and the overpowering need to infuse all of it with some kind of personal meaning that makes the crazy ride worthwhile.
The Evolution of Patti Smith
I recently watched two videos of Patti Smith, the first of which was trending both because of her 69th birthday on December 30, but also because of the message she related in the 1978 Japanese video about living in the moment. The second video in which she is interviewed by Tom Snyder on May 11, 1978 is particularly intriguing. She rambles – sometimes brilliantly, and other times somewhat incoherently – about topics ranging from religion to fame. It is clear that she is uncomfortable as she fidgets a lot on the set. Her vibe is an odd paradox between extremely self-confident and pretentious and painfully awkward and refreshingly authentic.
In the years that have ensued, Smith has endured losses that would cause some to retreat into a world of self-pity and despair. These losses have been written about countless times by her and others. They include Robert Mapplethorpe in March 1989 from an AIDS-related illness, her original keyboardist Richard Sohl from a heart attack in June 1990, her beloved husband Fred “Sonic” Smith in November 1994 from a heart attack, followed a month later by her brother Todd from a stroke. Since then she has lost William Burroughs, her closest female friend, and both parents.
Smith has evolved into a highly articulate sage – a woman who is as revered for her music as she is for her considerable literary and speaking talents. I have revisited her early music and while I do not love every single one of the songs, I see a progression that parallels her growth on all other levels – as a poet, writer, artist, and songwriter. Her album Horses is brilliant and truly remarkable … and has withstood the test of time. During the 40 years that have elapsed since release of that masterpiece, her singing and literary voices have grown stronger and more sophisticated, as she has evolved into the true embodiment of a Renaissance woman.
The marvelous thing is that although Ms. Smith has enjoyed incredible and well deserved success on so many levels of artistic expression, she has become more humble with age. She has shed the egocentric bravado and adulation for profanity, both of which she wore as a badge of rebellion early in her career. Millions of people all over the world look up to her, admire her, and adore her – for similar, but personally nuanced reasons. Yet she is as awe-struck by her idols and the world around her as we collectively are of her. She is full of paradoxical surprises – a love of Arthur Rimbaud melds with an addiction to detective fiction and programs like The Killing.
This remarkable woman has rubbed shoulders with Warhol, Hendrix, Ginsberg, Reed, and Joplin, among others; she was Sam Shepard’s lover and William Burroughs’ friend. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, was personally invited by Pope Francis to play a Christmas concert at the Vatican, has played concerts and lectured all over the world, and is the recipient of numerous awards including the National Book Award. Her groundbreaking music, literature, and photography reflect the worldly yet deeply personal introspection of a true poet. It is that, coupled with quirky paradoxes, warrior spirit, and pure artistic genius that keeps us transfixed after 40 years.
Ms. Smith – may your 69th year take you on many more insightful journeys of the heart and soul, and I hope you bless us with your creative genius for another 40 years!
Photo credits: What Comes Around Goes Around, The New York Times/Philip Montgomery, Judi Linn, Pirelli Calendar/Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair, Gerard Malanga