Patti Smith is more than the goddess of punk, more than the genius behind Horses. She’s a vessel for a kind of haunted haunting consciousness, ruled by an inner spirit I cannot hope to understand beyond a few simple impressions. Her second memoir, M Train, is a product of that haunted consciousness, and as such it’s difficult to fully grasp. I found I had to let go and enter into the atmosphere she creates, to just go along for the ride.
She’s certainly a strange person. I cannot claim to relate to her obsessions and behaviors….but though the details of these are woven through M Train, the overall feeling is, primarily, of loss, and that is something most of us, especially of a certain age, can identify with. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel the tremendous force of Smith’s aching, enduring love for her husband Fred, which she lives with on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis. And there are less significant, but still deeply felt losses: her favorite coffee shop closes; Rockaway Beach all but disappears in the wake of Hurricane Sandy mere days after she buys a bungalow there; her longing for her children as they were when they were small. This last is something few people seem to write or talk about: I miss my babies as well as my grandbabies; the adults they have become just aren’t the same people I knew back in the day, and they never will be again.
Smith spends a lot of time and consciousness honoring her dead—not just Fred, her brother Todd, and her old friend Robert Mapplethorpe, but also the writers who have inspired her: Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath. She travels halfway across the world on pilgrimages to their graves, leaving appropriate offerings and taking away Polaroid snapshots.
Her purchase of the Rockaway bungalow moved me deeply. My happiest childhood memories—ecstatic, really—are of summers spent with relatives in Rockaway: the boardwalk, the rides, the beach, the ocean. Rows and rows of sweet little bungalows, the women playing Mah Jong, the men poker; no traffic, room to play and breathe and wander, where I spent summers from age four to fourteen. Knowing the way Patti Smith cherishes inanimate objects as much as she does people, I feel a glow of reassurance from knowing she’s the proprietor of one of those beloved old bungalows.
Ultimately, Patti Smith continues to fascinate and inspire me.
Rockaway in the 1950’s