Thursday, March 31, 2016

M Train - Patti Smith (2015)

M Train is Patti Smith's follow-up to Just Kids and I misunderstood it to be a kind of sequel or continuation of that critically-acclaimed volume.  I understood M Train to be about Patti Smith's life in the late 70's through the mid 90's, or at least focusing on that period.  I do not know why I labored under this delusion, and it had to be from some kind of misinformation in a review I read about a year ago or whenever it was released (not quite--October of 2015, ironically close to the release of our previous review).  Certainly one wouldn't get that impression from reading the inside jacket.

So it goes without saying that this is not the book I expected it to be, but I would have read it regardless.  And while I personally cannot rate it as highly as Just Kids, it is very close.  It's a loose, experimental book, and it mostly works.  Some moments are as brilliant and heartbreaking as anything that came before, and at other moments, there's just a lot of coffee.

M Train is about many things, but there are several major themes, and chief amongst them has to be coffee.  The #1 topic of this book is coffee.  All Patti Smith does is drink coffee. She is like Balzac, though I believe her reflection on that literary subject and his caffeine addiction is in Just Kids.  Much of the book consists of Smith waking up and crossing the street to Cafe Ino which is somewhere near 6th Ave and Bedford Ave. in the Village.  (Note: Smith also recalls getting falafel at Mamoun's the night before Hurricane Sandy struck.)  She sits at the same corner table and orders brown toast and olive oil and drinks coffee and writes in her notepad, or on napkins.  She develops a possessiveness about the table that is humorous.  One scene where she confronts another woman trying to take it from her is pretty hilarious:

"The cafe was empty, but the cook was unscrewing the outlet plate above my seat.  I took my book into the bathroom and read while he finished.  When I emerged, the cook was gone and a woman was ready to sit in my seat.
-Excuse me, this is my table.
-Did you reserve it?
-Well, no, but it's my table.
-Did you actually sit here?  There's nothing on the table and you have your coat on.
I stood there mutely.  If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.  I shrugged and sat at another table, hoping to wait her out.  She spoke loudly, asking for eggs Benedict and iced coffee with skim milk, neither offered on the menu.
She'll leave, I thought.  But she didn't.  She plopped her oversized red lizard bag on my table and made numerous calls on her cell phone.  There was no way to escape her odious conversation, fixed on a tracking number for some missing FedEx package.  I sat and stared at the heavy white coffee mug.  If this were an episode of Luther, she would be found faceup in the snow with objects from her purse arranged about her: a bodily corona like Our Lady of Guadalupe." (74-75)

For a second I thought Smith was being a little too crazy, but then I realized that she must have a different sort of life.  I'm not saying she deserves to be entitled, but she deserves to feel entitled with everything she has done over the past forty years.  If you don't know who she is, and you don't give her the deference she should command, you kind of deserve it.

The book is not a memoir of 1978 - 2015, but more like a series of snapshots in a life, roughly centered around the 2012-2013 year in Greenwich Village and Far Rockaway.

There are several dream sequences in this book--a certain "cowpoke" bedevils Smith throughout the book--and some of them are heartbreaking and beautiful:

[Smith describes dreaming of a winding path up a mountain with a guide who then abandons her in a very steep open area and then is suddenly safe on the ground approached by a youth and told that they called to Fred, then seeing two men who give her tea and feed her cake and tell her they intervened and called to Fred and he carried her there, but there was the matter of a fee, one hundred thousand dirhams]
"I reached into my pocket and it was filled with money, exactly what he asked for, but the scene had shifted.  I was alone on a stony path surrounded by chalky hills.  I paused to reflect on what had happened.  Fred had rescued me in a dream.  And then suddenly I was back on the highway and I saw him in the distance trailing after the wheel with the face of a clock with no hands.
-Get it, Fred! I cried.
And the wheel collided with a massive cornucopia of lost things.  It fell on its side, and Fred knelt and placed his hand on it.  He flashed a huge smile, one of absolute joy, from a place with no beginning or end." (244-245)

Fred of course is her late husband and the book opens up with a description of their trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, "a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America," the site of a former French penal colony, where hardcore criminals would be kept before going onto Devil's Island.  Jean Genet had supposedly wanted to go there (to ascend the ladder of criminality), and he was about 70 at the time, and Patti wanted to bring back some stones from the jail to give him, with William S. Burroughs promising to help deliver the stones to him.  This is easily one of the best parts of the book.  It reads like an adventure thriller.  A movie could probably be made about it.

The ending finds Smith at Genet's grave in a town outside Tangier in the late 90's, on assignment interviewing Paul Bowles, taking a side trip to deliver the stones she never got to him in person.  It's a beautiful opening and closing motif.

From here the book goes to Cafe Ino, already described above, and she fantasizes for a moment about opening up a cafe in New York, even going so far as to procure a space with a down payment, before Fred "Sonic" Smith asks her to marry him and move to Detroit with him.  She laid out her inspiration, and I was pleasantly surprised to find an establishment just a few blocks from my present abode:

"An unwinding spool of obscure angles, a glass of tea, an opened journal, and a round metal table balanced with an empty matchbook.  Cafes.  Le Rouquet in Paris, Cafe Josephinum in Vienna, Bluebird Coffeeshop in Amsterdam, Ice Cafe in Sydney, Cafe Aqui in Tucson, Wow Cafe at Point Loma, Caffe Trieste in North Beach, Caffe del Professore in Naples, Cafe Uroxen in Uppsala, Lula Cafe in Logan Square, Lion Cafe in Shibuya, and Cafe Zoo in the Berlin train station.

So Patti must have come back fairly recently to her place of birth.  Actually, she was here just a few days ago, hosting an event at the Old Town School of Folk Music with her family.  It was $25 and I thought it was too much, but really I should have looked more closely into it because I thought it was just a speaking gig.

From there she remarks upon Zak, the owner of Cafe Ino, telling her to visit him at the new coffee shop he's opening near Rockaway Beach, which opens up the whole narrative about her finding a little bungalow that she falls in love with there and ends up buying after touring and making a bunch of money over the summer of 2012.  Then, Hurricane Sandy hits.  This is another great part of the book, because its a narrative of one of the quintessential New York disasters of late.  Like the way City on Fire depicts the blackout in 1977, Smith depicts Hurricane Sandy memorably and accurately.

Smith also writes about her membership in the CDC--the Continental Drift Club, which celebrates the life of Alfred Wegener, who pioneered the idea.  I would imagine that most people would think this is another hilarious facet to her.  But she meets Bobby Fischer on a trip to Iceland with the CDC, and that is another classic scene.

She also writes about a trip to Mexico to see the coffee capital Vereacruz, followed by an engagement to photograph Frida Kahlo's home and belongings in Casa Azul.  This was the only part of the narrative that baffled me--did Smith really fly home in between the two trips?  Because it seems like she was pretty much in the same area.  She flies into Mexico City, buys a round trip train ticket to Veracruz, checks into Casa Azul, finds it closed, goes to Veracruz, has adventures there.  Then, it cuts to her packing in New York and flying out to Mexico again.  Maybe she has to go to Casa Azul twice?  I digress...

One of her favorite authors over the course of the book is Haruki Murakami.  She writes of first discovering him in St. Mark's Bookshop and reading a few books but then getting bowled over by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  And she becomes obsessed with this image of a well on an abandoned property in Japan.

Smith later does go to Japan, and visit several graves of artists she admires,  I think I've done a pretty good job of spoiling almost every little thing this book is about, but it won't matter (oh right--also detective shows, especially The Killing) because the pleasure of it lies in Smith's voice on the page and the poetic flourishes she sometimes employs.

While there is so much to admire in this book, its reach is more limited than her previous volume (she would not sell a Showtime series based upon it).  It is much more of a "journal" type book.  It's labeled as a biography, which just seems blatantly wrong.  It actually says "biography" on the back near the bar code.  In any case it's beautiful writing, but it sometimes dissolves into basically what amounts to a diary.  I never wrote this well in a diary or journal so there's a difference.

Some sequences in the book are better than others, and it tends to ebb and flow with momentum.  I'm not sure what Smith expects us to think about her life, but basically, she is human.  Her talk of detective shows makes her seem like less of an otherworldly artist who would shun television.  She even writes what amounts to fan fiction at one point.

Fans of Smith will love this, and those still unacquainted probably will too.  And others may not get it, or find parts boring, but on the whole this will likely be a pleasurable and educational experience for most.  It seems like a good book to read while you're traveling to an exotic city.  Or holed up in a storm.      

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