I feel very close to Patti Smith. She has shared with me the most intimate details of her life, her upbringing, her struggle as a young woman discovering art, life and love, and the inner workings of her mind through her writing and music. I grew up with her as I bounced around my bedroom to Because the Night and Free Money. Together we shared a beautiful moment, her daughter performing live at Carnegie Hall in New York where Patti was moved to tears. We share many of the same tastes and obsessions, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolfe, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. And we have the type of friendship where I can absolutely trust her judgement when she recommends films, television shows and books to me.
As a woman who is so honest and open, I was at first surprised by the reservation of her new book M Train. Here is a Patti who is getting older, her children have grown up, her husband tragically passed away. She seems withdrawn, more solitary, and prone to moments of lethargy and almost depression. She spends her days going to cafes, writing, reading and binge watching Swedish detective TV series. Another thing Patti and I have in common, a propensity to turn to the flickering screen to numb a broken heart. And yet she is still the Patti I know and love, her humour, passion and her unwavering pursuit of beauty, meaning and rapture is truly inspiring, whether she is hunting it in nature, art, or in her own work.
Her travels are like pilgrimages, to Mexico to visit the home of Frida Kahlo, to Japan to visit the graves of some of her favourite directors and authors. She does not speak about making music, only about writing. And so her music is writing really, it is poetry with a backing track. A very good backing track. Imagining this book to pick up where Just Kids left off, we find that instead Patti speaks little of her marriage and her experience of bring up her children, this period of her life is left private. She does however describe her incredible and enduring love of her husband, some of their pilgrimages they took together, and little tid- bits about their lives together. This is still very much an open wound. Unlike with Robert who she writes about with the distance of time, able to tell the tale of their love with poetry. Patti and Robert had an incredible bond, one that went beyond their relationship as lovers, to that of lifelong friends and collaborators. And yet here we are talking about something even beyond that. Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith is an underlying vein throughout the book, even when he is not mentioned we feel his loss through Patti.
Just Kids I instantly connected with. Here was a woman who was going through the same things I was, growing up, finding her feet on her own, dealing with poverty and with the constant pervading desire to create. She romanticises the semi-nomadic lifestyle of moving from home to home, splashing out on little luxuries such as corn dogs, and selling shell necklaces to get by. She is the typical struggling artist who acts as an inspiration for us all, truly abiding by the myth of the almost holy status of poverty as an impetus for great art.
And so the summer I read Just Kids I spent my days combing the beaches of Tasmania for shells with perfectly formed holes, ripe for the transformation into necklaces. And then I set out on my own road to poverty, moving into a three bedroom weatherboard 40s house in Melbourne with a massive overgrown garden which our cat stalked through like a tiger, a crumbling asbestos shed, and at one point 7 other inhabitants. I still have fond memories of that house which now no longer exists, swallowed by the ever invading modern town houses squashed together so that you can practically reach out the window and hold the hand of your neighbour. It was a house that was constantly alive with music, art and the occasional wilful act of destruction. Here we could be ‘Just Kids’.
I look forward to re-reading M Train when I am older, when I too have experienced great loss and passing of time. Her life now is not romanticised as her youth was. And yet that I guess is reality. There is a vitality and vibrancy to the ambitions and struggles of youth, part of growing older is dealing with the loss of that. Yet Patti has not given that up, she is still constantly discovering new things. Still hunting, still following her burning desire to write, to create, and to follow her dreams (sometimes quite literally). Yes this is the same Patti, and overall the book has a positive message: it is possible to embrace aging gracefully, with both the passion of youth and the wisdom of years passed.
Patti Smith, M Train, 2015.