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M Train

by Patti Smith
Reviewed by Carola Lott

Patti Smith is something of a Renaissance woman - a legendary rock star, a poet, an artist and a photographer. She is also the writer who won the 2010 National Book award for Just Kids, an account of her early years in New York and her friendship with the artist, Robert Maplethorpe.

Smith calls her most recent book, The M Train,  "a roadmap to my life."  Her days in New York follow a routine beginning when "I slid on my boots, fed the cats, grabbed my watch cap and old black coat and headed out toward the road many times taken, across the wide avenue to Bedford Street and a small Greenwich Village café."  This is the Cafe Ina where, fueled by countless cups of coffee, Smith wrote most of  The M Train, which Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times voted one of the best books of 2015. On the dust jacket is a photograph of Smith sitting at her usual table having her last cup of coffee just before the café closed forever.

Unlike Just Kids which was written chronologically, The M Train moves seamlessly back and forth between dreams and memories. She describes her travels, many to far flung parts of the world including French Guiana, Iceland and Japan. Most of all she tells about the people she has lost but feels are still with her. By writing she tries to bring them back so others can know them as well. 

Smith says she never intended to write about the person who meant the most to her, Fred Sonic Smith, planning to save him for her next book. However the MC5 guitarist whom she married in 1980, kept making his way onto the pages. For 17 years, Smith disappeared from the public scene, devoting herself to domestic life and raising the couple's two children. Not until Fred died in 1994 of a heart attack did she return to New York and resume her music career.

Many of the travels she describes are pilgrimages to the graves or houses of people she admires. She always brings with her small tokens or mementos to thank them for the work they have given us. Her descriptions are enhanced by her photographs taken with one of her Polaroid Land Cameras Ð moody, rather indistinct images that nonetheless give feeling of each particular place.

Smith's writing is evocative whether she is describing reality or a dream. Of one of her recurring dreams that featured a cowpoke in the American West she writes,  "There appeared to be nothing else around except an antiquated gas pump and a rusting trough ornamented with a necklace of horseflies slung above the last dregs of its stagnant water." On a pilgrimage to Frida Kahlo's house in Mexico she discovers a cafe that serves "coffee distilled from beans highland grown, entwined with wild orchids and dusted with their pollen; an elixir marrying nature's extremes."

In the spring of 2012 Smith visits Rockaway Beach where she was so taken by a "ramshackle bungalow behind the derelict wooden fence that I could think of nothing else."  By the end of her extensive European summer tour she had managed to raise the money to pay for it the house she calls My Alamo. Weeks later on October 22, Hurricane Sandy destroyed everything along the beach, but miraculously left her house in act. "Though severely damaged my Alamo had survived the first great storm of the 21st century."

Now nearing 70 her long black hair turned to white, Smith is still going strong. On December 5 she joined Bono and U2 in a concert in Paris to commemorate the victims of the massacre. She is about to record a new album while at the same time working on her next book about the two people who meant the most to her Ð her brother, Bob Smith, and her husband, Fred, of whom she says, "My yearning for him permeated everything my poems, my songs, my heart."