M Train [Review]

M Train

by Patti Smith
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015

I read this book as a challenge for Seattle Public Library. Every summer they have a book bingo game, and if you fill in a row of five (the center square is free) you are entered in a contest. Each square is for a book of a different topic or genre: Fiction, Science, Bookstore recommendation, etc. One of the squares was for a SAL — Seattle Arts and Lectures — speaker, which Smith will fulfill in October.

I knew of Patti Smith from her days in the NYC punk scene as a singer, songwriter, and poet.  Back then I had something of a girlcrush on her… in the first picture I ever saw of her, I thought she was a beautiful boy.  I wish I looked like her, sinewy and lanky, ready to tackle anything that headed my way. I wonder if her career would have had the trajectory it did if she had been a more conventionally feminine rock artist like Ann or Nancy Wilson of Heart, or, in the punk world, a vampish Siouxsie Sioux. It seemed to me she got more respect and less catcalling being androgynous.

The introduction states M Train is a book about nothing, but in actuality it covers a year in her in life – 2012 to be exact, skipping periodically to the past and then back to the present. It is structured around the notion of a café, a place where a writer can sit and drink coffee and watch the world go by, as Smith does at her local coffeehouse, Café ‘Ino. She is there on the book’s cover, sitting in her favorite spot.  The book is also about her two homes, New York City and Michigan, and travels and sojourns and friends. Not quite a memoir, more a series of reminisces. Smith has a way with the English language, using words as rhythm the way a poet at an open mike might, and I liked it much more than I thought I would.

Some of her tales are heartbreaking, like the sudden death of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, a founding member of the MC5, and then, a month later, of her brother, who had sworn to help her and her family through the grieving process. I knew Smith’s background from reading a Robert Mapplethorpe biography but not her life after the mid-1980s, and I was amazed to discover she had two kids and had raised them far from New York in a small town in Michigan. I was also amazed she had married a member of the MC5; for ages I thought her husband was G.E. Smith, the guitarist in the 1980s and 90s for the  Saturday Night Live band. I don’t know how I got that notion. Though Sonic Smith does not play a large role in the book he is present in the background, and Smith does a fine job of humanizing him as well, showing that so ferocious a guitar player and youthful hellraiser also enjoyed listening to baseball games in an old wooden boat.

In addition, the book made me want to carry a notebook around and using for writings and sketches on the fly, something I had never done, and always wanted to do. I am so envious of artists who do that and wind up with books so fat they can’t close. So thanks, Patti.


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