Patti Smith is one of the most original artists in the history of rock and roll. She also has a fair claim to the title of most pretentious, which is no small achievement. In fact, one of the things that makes her such a singular cultural figure is that her affectations are the bedrock of her originality. She has sought to define herself, quite explicitly, through her devotion to a select group of writers, artists and musicians, whose names she drops with the kind of reverence traditionally reserved for deities and saints. She is an unabashed fan, a ‘hero worshipper’ (her own words), and the sense of purpose she has drawn from her devotion has, paradoxically, made her inimitable.
Some of this reverence can be traced back to her youthful self-fashioning. The performance artist Penny Arcade, who knew Smith in the early 1970s, remembers her as
a very demanding person to know because she was extremely driven. Patti wanted to look like Keith Richards, smoke like Jeanne Moreau, walk like Bob Dylan, and write like Arthur Rimbaud. She had this incredible pantheon of icons that she was patterning herself on. She had a really romantic vision of herself.
The distinctive aspect of Smith’s idolisation, the thing that makes it unusual and definitive, is that it is about more than acknowledging those debts of influence and inspiration that all artists owe. Her many heroes are namechecked in her work and in interviews not simply in appreciation, or for their aura of celebrity (though this is clearly part of their fascination), but as emblems of her creative ideals, as evidence of art’s ability to move and transform. Smith holds to a deeply romantic belief that the true artist is an outsider and a visionary, someone who is able ‘to see what others could not’, as she puts it in her memoir Just Kids (2010). She is, as Lester Bangs observed in his review of her landmark debut album Horses (1975), ‘an artist in a way that’s right old-fashioned’. She believes in the power of art and the mythology of rock and roll, believes in poetry and music as means of transcendence. She believes that poetry makes things happen. ‘i haven’t fucked much with the past,’ she declares in the prose poem ‘Babelogue’, ‘but i’ve fucked plenty with the future.’ She is, above all, a believer. And as she states in her new memoir M Train: ‘All doors are open to the believer.’
This combination of ingenuousness and romanticism can make Smith a dicey proposition as a poet and performer. Her early work, in particular, placed an inordinate faith in the virtues of instinct and spontaneity. ‘Her poems weren’t based on intellectual judgements but were pure emotional torrents,’ recalls her guitarist Lenny Kaye, ‘and we used to improvise a lot.’ In an interview shortly after the release of Horses, Smith said:
I don’t consider writing a quiet, closet act. I consider it a real physical act. When I’m home writing on the typewriter, I go crazy. I move like a monkey. I’ve wet myself, I’ve come in my pants writing … Instead of shooting smack, I masturbate — fourteen times in a row … I start seeing all these strange spaceships landing in the Aztec mountains … I see weird things. I see temples, underground temples, with the doors opening, sliding door after sliding door. Pharaoh revealed — this bound-up Pharaoh with ropes of gold. That’s how I write a lot of my poetry.
That’s one way of doing it, certainly. As toe-curlingly embarrassing as such effusions now seem, they are an indication of the extent to which Smith’s sensibility is a product of its era. Her early methods of composition were obviously influenced by the Beats. ‘When I was young I had the notion to think and write simultaneously,’ she reflects in M Train, ‘but I could never keep up with myself.’ The allegiance is one that Smith (of course) acknowledges. In a passage recalling her friendship with William Burroughs, she honours those ‘couriers of wisdom I was privileged to break bread with. Gone Beats [who] ushered my generation into a cultural revolution.’ Though she came to be associated with the punk movement of the late 1970s, she was older than most punks — 29 when Horses appeared — and, as she documents in Just Kids, she had been lurking at the edges of New York’s art and music scenes since the late 1960s. She was a published poet and music journalist; she had dabbled in painting and theatre; she had written lyrics for the Blue Öyster Cult. And in many respects her work is closer in spirit to the idealism of the earlier decade than it is to the irreverence and iconoclasm of classic punk. This did not pass unnoticed at the time. Smith’s drummer Jay Dee Daugherty remembers the Sex Pistols’s singer Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) mocking her from the stage in 1976, not long after the Patti Smith Group had performed in London:
And in we go to the Roundhouse the other night, see this hippy shaking the tambourines, Horses, Horses, HORSE-SHIT.
In hindsight, the most significant thing about Smith’s pantheon of cultural heroes is not that it is the obvious product of an era that regarded the question of whether one preferred the Beatles or the Rolling Stones as a matter of some importance; it is the way it maps out her aesthetic and philosophical preferences. Her biographer Victor Bockris notes that she was initially as entranced by the bohemian lives of writers and artists as she was by their work. As a young woman, she was drawn to the dark glamour of doomed men (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jackson Pollock), to literary vagabonds and outlaws (Rimbaud, Burroughs, Jean Genet), and to rock music’s pseudo-outlaws (Keith Richards, Morrison again). In Just Kids, which focuses on her close relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe — both of them pre-fame — she recalls that in the early 1970s the two of them spent months hanging around Max’s Kansas City, which was known to be frequented by the denizens of Andy Warhol’s Factory, in the hope that they might be invited into the inner-sanctum. But unlike Mapplethorpe, Smith found nothing to admire in Warhol’s pop art. ‘I preferred an artist who transformed his time,’ she writes, ‘not mirrored it.’
One of the things that makes Just Kids a remarkable book is Smith’s mature recognition of the fact that her desire to become an artist preceded any real understanding of what that might entail. It describes her and Mapplethorpe making their way with a confidence born of innocence, with a certainty of intent but not of knowledge. They are both guided by an instinctive process of aesthetic discrimination that is understood to be a form of self-realisation in which the creative and the personal are intimately entwined. The creative impulse springs from the same source as their shared escapist impulse, which draws them together and propels them into their precarious bohemian coexistence. Just Kids is, in this sense, a clear-eyed reflection on the idea that to make oneself into an artist is an essentially quixotic enterprise: it is to insist that, on some level, one is free to become something that one is not.
Escape, transformation, transcendence — belief in these possibilities is intrinsic to Smith’s conception of personal freedom, which is in turn central to her romantic self-definition as an artist. The idea is present in her work from the beginning. Her first single ‘Piss Factory’ (1974), a freewheeling prose poem that she recites over some jazzy piano chords, describes her experience of being bullied and assaulted while working a dead-end job. It ends on a note of defiance:
And I’m gonna go I’m gonna get out of here I’m gonna get on that train and go to New York City and I’m gonna be somebody … I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return never return no never return to burn at this Piss factory. And I will travel light Oh watch me now.
The gonna-be-a-star sentiment is a cliché, but the rejection of a mundane existence is reflected in the idealism of Smith’s declared aesthetic principles, which refuse to accept any form of determination or constraint. Her early work is littered with manifesto-like assertions of creative and personal independence. In the liner notes to her second album Radio Ethiopia (1976), she claims ‘the freedom to be intense … to defy social order and break the slow kill monotony of censorship … to break from the long bonds of servitude-ruthless adoration of the celestial shepherd’. In ‘Babelogue’, from her third album Easter (1978), she declares: ‘i’m an american artist and i have no guilt.’ In her Collected Lyrics, she adds an explanatory note to ‘Gloria’ (or ‘In Excelsis Deo’ as the volume styles the title, in defiance of the original album cover), a song that fuses her early poem ‘Oath’ to Van Morrison’s garage rock classic, and which features the unforgettable opening line ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’:
[‘In Excelsis Deo’] personifies for me, within its adolescent conceit, what I hold sacred as an artist. The right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender and social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.
Smith’s seriousness of purpose can hardly be doubted. But is is also her besetting weakness as a songwriter and performer. Oscar Wilde observed that the true artist believes absolutely in himself because he is absolutely himself, and it is certainly the case that part of Smith’s achievement is to have become absolutely herself. But Wilde also said that all bad poetry is sincere, and Smith can be painfully sincere. The reason I have always been ambivalent about her music, even though I admire its audacity and appreciate its cultural significance, is that she often seems to have absorbed all of the post-war counterculture’s self-importance and none of its humour and playfulness. Her professed openness to the ‘sea of possibility’, the explicitly visionary orientation of her work (there are countless references to dreams and dreaming in her Collected Lyrics), and the self-conscious artiness of her combination of wigged-out Beat poetry and the primal energy of rock and roll — these are all performed with a sense of unswerving conviction that can come across as a deadly earnestness. There is, for example, a cathartic moment in ‘Land’ — a feverish and menacing ‘improvisation’ (her description) loaded with violent and sexually-charged imagery — when the band breaks into the liberating three-chord pop of Chris Kenner’s ‘Land of 1000 Dances’. But when Smith starts howling ‘do the watusi’ it sounds less like a party invitation than an order — you’d better damn well do it, and do it properly. There is not much sense that doing the watusi might be, you know, fun.
Collected Lyrics begins with an epigraph from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Footnote to Howl’ – the first of many scattered throughout the volume from the likes of Genet, Breton, Sontag, Shelley and Lorca:
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
There is no trace of irony in this. Smith’s lyrics contain enough Catholic terminology and portentous Bible references to suggest that the celestial shepherd may have slipped his crook around her neck at some stage – though the inclusion of lines from the Koran and a Buddhist prayer in Collected Lyrics would seem to indicate that she is happy to accommodate other religious philosophies that happen to drift through her transom. But the explicitly religious overtones of her work are impossible to disentangle from her attitude towards the acts of creation and expression. Her romantic idealism has a naturally ungrounded quality, in the sense that it is quasi-religious, visionary, forward-looking, even optimistic. Her mode is often one of exhortation. Her performances are not merely declamatory, but incantatory, shamanistic, prophetic. When her lyrics address dark, worldly subjects – violence, suffering, grief – she is willing herself and others to overcome them. There is none of the plain-spoken documenting of the seamy side of urban life that one finds, for example, in Lou Reed – whose creative temperament is more or less antithetical to Smith’s, despite their common background in late-1960s New York bohemia. Nor do her lyrics display that combination of linguistic dexterity and an acute sense of form that is a feature of some of Dylan’s best work. For Smith, the aim is to become enchanted and illusioned, to achieve a kind of imaginative union, which it would be murder to dissect. ‘Personally, I’m not much for symbolism,’ she writes in M Train:
I never get it. Why can’t things be just as they are? I never thought to psychoanalyze Seymour Glass or sought to break down ‘Desolation Row’. I just wanted to get lost, to become one with somewhere else, slip a wreath on a steeple top solely because I wished it.
Ginsberg – ‘who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish’ (to quote from his most famous poem) – is an important early influence, and there is a droll anecdote in Just Kids about Smith meeting him for the first time when he mistook her for a boy and tried to pick her up. What seems to have been lost on her – at least, it hasn’t carried over into her lyrics, as far as I am able to discern – is that Ginsberg’s signature declamatory mode is a species of bombast that flirts with absurdity and admits moments of rebounding humour:
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
The absence of comparable moments of levity in Smith’s lyrics is understandable in light of her particular version of romanticism, but it is also why the sense of absolute conviction that empowers and carries her work can sometimes come across as jejune or pretentious. This tends not to be the case with her more intimate lyrics, which are apt to be genuine and succinct in their expressiveness. She is also capable of crafting (not improvising) long imaginative visionary works of great complexity: ‘Constantine’s Dream’, from her most recent album Banga (2012), for example – though this is more in the vein of a long-poem-with-musical-accompaniment than a ‘song’ per se. Yet the same philosophical conviction that prevents her ironising herself or her work as a poet, a performer and an artist, also makes her susceptible to the inadvertent ridiculousness that results when rock musicians strike a messianic pose. Collected Lyrics includes songs about Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and the US invasion of Iraq, none of which rank as her best work. The democratic sentiments of the anthemic ‘People Have the Power’ from Dream of Life (1988) are admirable enough, but the song amounts to little more than an exercise in grandiose rhetoric, in which it is possible to hear hollow-sounding echoes of the naive political optimism of the 1960s:
I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass in our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’s revolution.
And even Bono might baulk at these lines from the squalling title track to Radio Ethiopia:
There will be no famine in my existence
I merge with the people of the hills
People of Ethiopia
Your opiate is the air that you breathe.
Song lyrics and poems are not quite the same thing. They can and do have different imperatives and virtues, even if the distinction can sometimes be a blurry one — and particularly so in the case of Smith, who has always styled herself more as a performance-poet-turned-musician than a dedicated songwriter in the manner of Dylan or Reed. Hank Williams’ lyrics might be lousy poetry, but as songs they are indestructible. Smith’s lyrics tend not have that lapidary quality, though there are many sins of composition that can be eclipsed by a powerful performance. ‘Pissing in the River’, for example, is a plea to a departing lover that contains some downright hoary lines (‘Everything I’ve done I’ve done for you / Oh I give my life for you … / … I can’t live without you’), but the recorded version on Radio Ethiopia has a slow grinding intensity that is steadily ratcheted up to hair-raising effect.
The song that perhaps best represents Smith’s singularity, her contradictions, her idealism, her propensity for naivety and wrongheadedness, and the irresistible force of her self-belief as a lyricist and performer is ‘Rock N Roll Nigger’. There is a fine line between clever and stupid, as someone once said (it was Bourdieu, I think). And the song’s basic conceit – that a ‘black sheep’, who is socially ostracised for falling pregnant, can appropriate and redeem a racist epithet that carries the sting of centuries of prejudice and oppression – might fairly be said to risk finding itself on the wrong side of that line. Its declaration of solidarity, which Smith extends to all the world’s oppressed (‘Those who have suffered understand suffering / And thereby extend their hand’), also runs up against the defining paradox of rock and roll’s mythology: the inbuilt contradiction of a genre that is populist, yet supposedly rebellious and subversive – a paradox perfectly encapsulated in the way Smith turns her desire to be ‘outside of society’ into a rousing sing-along stadium-rock chorus. The whole thing is completely outlandish. While you are still spluttering and asking yourself if she really just called Jimi Hendrix the n-word, she uses the same word to describe Jesus Christ, Jackson Pollock and her Grandma. One knowing wink and the song would collapse under the weight of its preposterousness. (On this point, ‘Rock N Roll Nigger’ bears comparison with Lou Reed’s sarcastic ‘I Wanna Be Black’, released the same year, which merely succeeds in being obnoxious: ‘I wanna be black / Have natural rhythm / Shoot twenty feet of jism / And fuck up Jews’.)
But Smith simply steamrolls all objections. Her fervent delivery refuses point blank to accept that there could be anything absurd or outrageous about what she is singing. And as a result, the song works in spite of itself, through sheer force of conviction. You can almost believe, if only for three minutes and 26 seconds, that it might really be possible to create from a position beyond gender and social definition, that the artist really does have no guilt, that she is not fucking with the past but with the future.
Rock-star memoirs have not exactly covered themselves in literary glory over the years. There are some commendable examples — Dylan’s quirky Chronicles, Volume One (2004) comes to mind — but more often they display the common failings of celebrity autobiographies: poor writing, vanity, indulgence, mythologising, score-settling and self-justification. These are all in evidence in Keith Richards’s overrated Life (2010) and Morrissey’s regally bitchy Autobiography (2013), which was apparently published as a Penguin Classic at the insistence of its author. (Come to think of it, I retract the second sentence of this review. Morrissey is clearly the most pretentious rock star ever — by miles.) Some kind of nadir would seem to have been reached with John Lydon’s recent Anger is an Energy (2014), a cautionary tale about the terrible descent into self-parody and rebarbative egotism that will result when a man spends his adult life talking about the world-altering thing he did when he was twenty. Its insufferable quality can be inferred from the fact that Lydon dedicates the book to ‘integrity’. Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s Some Bollocks would have been a better title.
Among the best recent examples of this undistinguished sub-genre are several above-average memoirs by musicians of the punk and post-punk eras — Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys (2014), Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (2015) and Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (2015) — all of which are valuable additions to the colourful cultural history of rock and roll, not least for that fact that they provide intelligent female perspectives on an often male-dominated industry. But these books, fresh and compelling though they are, do not aspire to be anything more than straightforward personal accounts.
Patti Smith’s two memoirs have risen above all of this, not only because they are much better written than most rock-star autobiographies, but because on a conceptual level they have aimed high and hit their marks. They do not rely on the details of her musical career for their interest. Just Kids covers the period in the 1970s in which she rose to fame, but the stories of her first poetry readings, the genesis of her band, and her early recording career are merely one aspect of a wider exploration of her formative years. Her personal account is not only obviously incomplete — there is no mention of Radio Ethiopia, for example — but subordinated to the encompassing theme of creative exploration and her sensitive memorialising of Mapplethorpe. M Train ignores Smith’s musical accomplishments altogether. ‘In 1978 I came into a little money,’ she writes near the beginning of the book, neglecting to mention that she had recently scored a major hit with ‘Because the Night’, a song co-written with Bruce Springsteen.
I have been referring to M Train as a ‘memoir’ by default, but it is something far more ambitious and complex than the word implies. It is a work in an elegiac mode that occupies an indeterminate space between autobiography, essay and fiction. It describes a series of pilgrimages Smith undertakes to pay her respects to some of the artists who have meant something to her. The first of these is an account of her and her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith travelling to French Guiana in the early 1980s, so that she can gather stones from the site of the now-abandoned jail that Genet romanticises in The Thief’s Journal (1964) as the apex of the criminal social hierarchy. Genet never made it there and the stones are a gift that Smith intends to deliver to him. Over the course of the book, she visits the former homes, or more frequently the graves, of Frida Kahlo, Bertolt Brecht, Sylvia Plath and Yukio Mishima, among many others. But M Train is more than a collection of homages; it is also a series of dreams, a meditation on the meaning and sacredness of objects, a reflection on the transporting and consoling power of literature, an ‘aria’ to Smith’s favourite beverage (coffee), and an essay on ageing, grief and loss.
M Train is a book measured out in coffee spoons. Its rhythm is set by the regularity of Smith’s day-to-day existence. She likes to rise each morning, walk to her favourite Greenwich Village cafe, sit at her favourite corner table, place her usual order (coffee, brown toast with olive oil), and lose herself in thinking and writing. Throughout the book, this cherished routine is constantly disrupted. Her various travels, physical and mental, draw her away from this grounding reality. The basic structuring technique is perhaps gleaned from Haruki Murakami, whose novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) Smith spends part of M Train obsessively reading and annotating, until she loses her copy in an airport bathroom. The rhythm of Murakami’s fiction tends to be established in its depictions of the repetitiveness of everyday life — the inevitable cycle of sleeping, waking, cooking, eating — around which dramatic or meaningful or imaginative occurrences must organise themselves. M Train is similarly pulled in opposite directions. Smith establishes her routine against the inexorable and corrosive march of time: it is her quiet way of resisting something that cannot be resisted. Its tangibility and orderliness are in marked contrast to her melancholy awareness of the intangibility of her memories. ‘We want things we cannot have,’ she writes:
We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of M Train is that it does not simply give itself over to memories and ruminations, but presents itself as an artfully conceived and thematically coherent work that encodes Smith’s preoccupations into its very form. Characteristically, she makes a point of naming and celebrating the authors she reads — Robert Musil, W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, among others — and no less characteristically her professions of admiration are a way for her to stake her own claim, to position her own work. They are a kind of tacit request for admission to their exclusive club. ‘All writers are bums,’ she mutters at one point when she is a little worse for wear from drinking sake, immediately adding: ‘May I be counted among you one day.’
But Smith also writes of the television detective shows of all kinds that she likes to watch, which appeal to her sense of order. ‘I have always hated loose ends,’ she claims. ‘If I read a book or see a film and some seemingly insignificant thing is left unresolved, I can get remarkably unsettled.’ (This may come as a surprise to devotees of some of her early work, which has more loose ends than her trademark untamed hairstyle.) In M Train, she casts herself as an odd kind of detective. Her self-depiction evokes, in an understated way, the modern archetype of the detective as an existential anti-hero — a solitary figure trying to piece together some kind of meaning and order from a disorderly and unstable world. Except Smith is not an empiricist, or even a rationalist. Quite the opposite. She interprets the world in a decidedly non-rational and even superstitious way, as a place full of signs and portents and objects that have a talismanic significance. Her recollections are patterned by a series of trivial losses — her copy of Murakami, her coat, her notebook — which are balanced by fortuitous and unexpected gains. Sometimes the lost objects are recovered, sometimes not (the notebook is mysteriously returned to her; the coat stays lost) – all of which is seen as part of life’s great wheel of fortune.
Yet the book’s small losses also echo the more devastating losses that are the book’s absent centre. Near the very end of M Train, there is a moving passage in which Smith describes her grief at the sudden deaths of her husband and her brother within a month of each other in 1994. This double-blow struck at the very essence of her being:
The world seemed drained of wonder. I did not write poems in a fever. I did not see the spirit of Fred before me or feel the spinning trajectory of his journey … The sudden death of Todd, so soon after Fred’s passing, seemed unbearable. The shock left me numb. I spent hours sitting in Fred’s favourite chair, dreading my own imagination.
M Train is a book about Smith reconnecting with her imagination. And it is a book about her imagination becoming reconciled to the reality of the losses she has suffered. It begins in the midst a dream, in which she encounters a cowpoke at an archetypal ‘lone cafe’ in the middle of nowhere. ‘It’s not so easy writing about nothing,’ he tells her. Later in the book, Smith wonders how she might take a picture of nothing. And it is in the face of this nothingness, these perpetually felt absences in her life, that her obsession with objects takes on its importance. The text is accompanied by numerous photographs, some personal, but many of other artists’ possessions — Bolaño’s chair, Kahlo’s crutches, Herman Hesse’s typewriter, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick. These have a kind of banality about them: a chair is just a chair and a stick is just a stick, no matter who owned them. But for Smith they are fragments shored against her ruin. They turn her thoughts around, because they are evidence of the reality of the world of artists and imagination. They point to the future as well as the past. She is the memory-detective who, over the course of the book, in the act of writing itself, becomes re-enchanted enough to look once more to the future, to possibility. This is embodied in the tumbledown beachside shack she buys on impulse, which miraculously survives the devastation of Hurricane Sandy — something she naturally interprets as a good omen.
None of this is to suggest that M Train is a morbid or overly earnest book. In fact, one of its unexpected charms is that it upends the image of the younger Smith as an ecstatic Beat poet turned messianic punk rocker. It is a work that remains true to the romanticism of her early vision, but tempers its excesses, balances it with a mature reflectiveness and a genuine sense of loss. The tone is one of quiet humility touched with resignation. ‘Dream must defer to life,’ she observes at one point — something her younger self might have been loath to admit. Her depiction of herself is demythologising, personalising and deeply appealing. It is even possible to detect an element of self-deprecating humour at work in her portrayal of herself as a slightly dotty old woman, who lives alone with her cats, eats a tin of sardines over the sink for her dinner, and conducts an imaginary conversation with her Jiminy Cricket-like conscience. In one scene, she is walking down the street and yesterday’s dirty sock falls out of her pant leg. During some of her more violent attacks of chutzpah in the late 1970s, Smith likened herself to Alexander the Great. ‘I’m into the manoeuvres of Alexander the Great,’ she declared in a 1978 interview, ‘… like Alexander I’m gonna go after all the territory I can.’ In ‘Babelfield’, from the same year, she wrote: ‘through the power and foresight and magnetism of alexander himself the artist must maintain his swagger’. It is perhaps with such pronouncements in mind that in one scene in M Train she again casts herself as the all-conquering general — this time without mentioning his name. In the course of another imagined conversation, in which she discusses her writing difficulties with a bust of Nicola Tesla, she echoes Alexander’s famously deflating exchange with the Cynic philosopher Diogenes: when she asks Tesla if there is anything she can do for him, he responds with a request that she stop blocking his light.
This kind of playful allusiveness is a feature of M Train. It is part of its intricate pattern of meaning, part of the way it constructs itself as a multifaceted homage and blooms into an expressive work of art in its own right. The chapter title ‘Hill of Beans’, for example, refers to a line from The Story of Davy Crockett, which Smith remembers reading as a child. She was puzzled when Davy’s father said his son would never amount to a hill of beans, but when she asked her mother what a hill of beans might be worth her childish question was waved away. The end of the chapter finds her scanning some grocery store shelves, trying to discover the literal value of beans: ‘Black beans kidney beans fava beans lima beans green beans navy beans all kinds of beans.’ Bob Dylan fans of a certain level of obsessiveness will recognise this line as a reference to Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), in which Dylan had a minor role. It is a kind of in-joke and a subtle homage to another one of her heroes. The scene casts the young Smith once more as a naive detective, her investigations misdirected in this instance as a result of her shaky grasp of metaphor, but the allusion is also a clue carefully left for her readers. Smith’s older and wiser self realises that her pursuit of meaning and enchantment, her desire to lose herself in a work of art, is also her readers’ pursuit, and that in this sense she must become the artist-quarry, like the one of the elusive poets pursued through Bolaño’s novels. She has crafted M Train accordingly, with great care, and it vindicates her fidelity to a long-held vision. ‘In my way of thinking, anything is possible,’ Smith writes near the end of M Train. ‘Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the centre, informs all.’
Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys (Faber, 2014)
Lester Bangs, Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, edited by John Morthland (Serpent’s Tail, 2002).
Victor Bockris, Patti Smith (Fourth Estate, 1998).
Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Virago, 2015).
Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems (Penguin, 2009).
Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band (Harper Collins, 2015).
Clinton Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids (Penguin, 1993).
John Lydon, Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove, 1996).
Morrissey, Autobiography (Penguin, 2013).
Lou Reed, Pass Thru the Fire: The Collected Lyrics (Da Capo, 2008).
Keith Richards, Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010).
Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010).
Simon Warner, Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture (Bloomsbury, 2013).