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Books: Travelling back and forth on Patti's runaway train


Patti Smith says she's something of a loner

Patti Smith says she's something of a loner

Patti Smith says she's something of a loner

The M Train traces the most winding of all New York's subway routes, meandering at underground and over, through Queens, lower Manhattan and back again to Queens.

This is a wandering book, but it has New York at its core, the city Smith fled to after her husband died, where she lives, with cats, in the West Village. M Train should crystalise Smith's reputation as not only one of the greatest women in rock 'n' roll but also an exceptional writer. It is a book that perhaps only Smith could pull off, focusing minutely on the present but reflecting often on the past. It captures in grainy detail individual moments of Smith's life as lived: visiting the nearby Cafe 'Ino every day, staying up all night watching detective shows.

Interspersed with these moments, however, Smith looks backwards. Her previous book, Just Kids, chronicled her turbulent early days and her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

This book dwells on a different phase in her life, after she had met her husband, Fred 'Sonic' Smith, with whom she had two children. She had been planning to open a cafe but he persuaded her to move with him to Michigan, where they set up house.

"Those were mystical times," she writes. "An era of small pleasures. When a pear appeared on the branch of a tree and fell before my feet and sustained me."

Fred died suddenly in 1994, and a large part of M Train is also about grief. She recalls fishing with Fred, and then notes, "The king is dead, no fishing today." Smith's beloved brother had a stroke, not long after. And many of those she knew are no longer around. As she notes after waking up one morning, "I had been dreaming of the dead. But which dead?"

Such emotive musings are mixed with the mundane, and one of the book's triumphs is how Smith blends the two.

Just after that dream of the dead, for instance, she looks at the clock on the VCR, "never able to remember the necessary chain of commands to get it going."

Another time, travelling to New Mexico for work, she flips out at an airline employee when confronted with having to negotiate a new system. "I want a person to give me my boarding pass, but she insisted I type my information on a screen using the damn kiosk. I had to rummage through my bag to find my reading glasses." Later she questions herself. "Why did I get so steamed up at check-in? Why did I want the girl to give me a boarding pass? Why couldn't I just get into the swing of things and get my own? It's the twenty-first century; they do things differently now." These moments of normalcy make the book relatable. Smith may be a genius writer-rockstar, but the challenges she confronts are not too different from our own.

And it is Smith's wit and self-reflection that prevents M Train from ever becoming maudlin. She gives the reader multiple tips and clues about her elusive authorial role. She is not, she says, much for symbolism, and wants things to be just as they are. Her writing style is true to this wish, conveying complex thoughts in deceptively casual and simple words.

She is an avid, voracious and exotic reader, seeking out and photographing the graves of writers who inspire her, and sprinkling references to them in her work.

"Writers and their books," she says. "I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with them all, but in the end is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be so? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions."

Invited frequently to speak and perform, Smith travels across the globe in this book, to Mexico, Tangiers, Japan and in memory to French Guiana with Fred. But the book is rooted in New York's reality.

Rockaway Beach, for example, recently became a lure for surfers and when Smith visits she falls in love with it, funding a local coffee shop and buying a small house, against her lawyer's advice.

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Hurricane Sandy sweeps things away temporarily but she returns to find her home damaged but still there. Change reigns in New York; the Cafe 'Ino, which Smith visits on a daily basis for much of the book, closes down by its end. She is despondent, too, when her preferred TV shows end: "A television network has snuffed The Killing."

Smith has written an extraordinary book, charting her thoughts, wishes, griefs, hopes, desires and her creative process.

Her dedication to the past and its people is evident throughout M Train but there is a reason why she writes of the everyday. "We seek to stay present, even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away."

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