M Train is a journey through eighteen "stations." It begins in the tiny Greenwich Village café where Smith goes every morning for black coffee, ruminates on the world as it is and the world as it was, and writes in her notebook. We then travel across a landscape of creative aspirations and inspirations: from Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul in Mexico, to a meeting of an Arctic explorer's society in Berlin; from the ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York's Far Rockaway that Smith buys just before Hurricane Sandy hits, to the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud, and Mishima. Woven throughout are reflections on the writer's craft and on artistic creation, alongside signature memories including her life in Michigan with her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, whose untimely death was an irremediable loss. For it is loss, as well as the consolation we might salvage from it, that lies at the heart of this memoir, augmented by black-and-white Polaroids taken by Smith herself.
Cafés, or at least regular doses of strong coffee, clearly play a huge part in Patti Smith’s life, and form the unifying theme of this volume of memoirs. Indeed, T. S. Eliot’s line, ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ might have proved a worthy epigraph. She describes her travels around the world, both with her late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (who died in 1994), and later on her own, and wherever she goes, she finds a café to use as a refuge. Her displeasure when someone else ‘steals’ her customary seat at one of her regular haunts is something that many of us can recognise and empathise with.
Her prose style is frequently beautiful and moving – somehow rather at odds with the ferocity of her early stage persona. I remember being both exhilarated but also almost frightened while watching her performances from the 1970s, when she would shout and rage at the audience. While the strength of character and self-assurance (I know, I know, a dirty word!) that underpinned those performances clearly remains, age appears to have mellowed her, and there is a contemplative tranquillity about many of these pieces.
M Train is a journey into the head of Patti Smith -- her memories, her obsessions, her present as a poet/artist in her late 60s. The picture on the cover of the book was taken by a casual acquaintance, passer-by, with Smith at her corner table of the Cafe 'Ino, on the day the cafe was closing. It is iconic of the voice of the book -- the watch-cap, the cup of black coffee, the Polaroid camera, the deeply ruminative gaze.
She invites us on her trip to Devil's Island to gather stones for Genet, to Reykjavik for a meeting of the exclusive Continental Drift Club honoring Alfred Wegener, on her drives through Detroit with her husband Fred, to the Dorotheenstadt Cemetary where Brecht is buried, to her cottage in Far Rockaway dubbed "My Alamo" which survived Hurricane Sandy.
She pushes her way through a persistent malaise with work, black coffee, beloved detective shows, and travel. Always in the background is an apparition of a philosophic cowpoke prodding her thoughts. The book is dedicated "for Sam." One cannot help but reference her onetime lover and collaborator, Sam Shepard.
M Train is the memoir of a purposeful, persistent wanderer through life. I admire both the writing and the writer.
For me it was the image of a train of memories and the memoir as striking as Charles Demuth’s painting “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold,” itself based on William Carlos Williams’s poem "The Great Figure." A work of imaginative writing reflecting on the world around the author which she turns into art and all encompassing; it contains her world awaking and dreaming, full of other people and their productions: art, coffee, conversation, science, and memories.
Be prepared for an intense read. I listened to this audio in its entirety, but I must admit, I wanted to quit many times. The author narrates her own book, and her style is a monotone that drones on and on, without any modulation. It feels sad from beginning to end as she takes the reader on her journey following no timeline and no pattern, but randomly jumping from topic to topic, year to year, memory to memory. She examines her dreams, revisits excursions to many places and countries in order to photograph, write poetry, lecture, make music, and write. It reads a bit like a travelogue sometimes, albeit one that contains famous names. There is, midst the gloom of her memories, a sardonic moment and a touch of humor now and again.
In spite of the solemnity of the memoir and lamenting nature of the narration, the straightforward, conversational nature of the reading made me stay on long after I thought I would. I simply felt that the author was speaking directly to me, confiding in me, unleashing her tormented soul, relieving her emotional angst upon my shoulders, so how could I abandon her? I felt like I had been invited to read her diary. Obviously, somehow, in spite of her lack of emotion in the reading, she filled her story with it in the telling, and I connected completely with her, in the end.
It felt almost like a lamentation about the losses she experienced in her life, many of which seemed untimely and unfair. She had a house in New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit, a house that by all rights should have been destroyed but stood alone among her neighbors intact, still however, in need of its original list of necessary repairs. The coffee shop she invested in and loved died a premature death. Two loves of her life, her husband and her brother, left her in the prime of their lives. When she visited the home of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the trip was marred by her severe migraine. The organization she gave speeches for in Iceland that concerned itself with Arctic expeditions, closed its doors.
All of the mundane happenings of life somehow took on a larger than life meaning for her. She agonized over the ways that travel changed, down to resenting the seat belt requirements on airlines or kiosks used for boarding passes. She traveled to Vera Cruz hoping to get a superb cup of coffee, a drink she adored. She collected odd little pieces of memorabilia that meant so much to her, and yet she often lost the things that meant most to her. She had a compulsion to make lists to keep organized and functioning, but somehow, she was forgetful too and was always leaving something important behind and wondering if it was a message or sign of some kind. She missed her mother and her father. She reminisced about the time she played chess with Bobby Fischer.
So you see, while it was intensely interesting because of the subjects she introduced, it was rambling and somber as well. Most of the time, she seemed to be looking backward, morosely, at the lost loves of her life, without the opposite effort of looking forward, somewhat with joy. She is, and was obviously, a free spirit who missed her husband her other family members. She dwelled upon the illnesses that afflicted them, and even memorialized her own serious childhood illness. At the end, there was the barest hint that she would continue to investigate and participate in new projects, in spite of the heavy cloak of grief that seemed to travel along with her.
So, what is the M train? Is it a train with no fixed destination, traveling down the road of life showing us all the random events we will all someday face, sooner or later? Is it the embodiment of the capriciousness of life? Somehow, in spite of the monotone, in spite of the sorrow and solemnity inhabiting the pages of her memoir, it grabbed my heartstrings and made me think about my own life and lost loves.
Patti's existence casually careens between the magical and the mundane and through it all she is completely calm. She is overcome by stomach flu and ends up sleeping it off in Frida Kahlo's bed. She creates a memorial tribute to Rimbaud, lays it at his grave, and returns to her room to watch her beloved reruns of Law & Order SVU. (She really likes television crime dramas a lot, and they are discussed at length, and it is not at all boring somehow.)
I guess the point is that she is who she is. She talks about Genet, and Kurosawa in the same way she talks about Law & Order and Prime Suspect. She talks about her telepathic emotional connection to a 16th century Japanese writer the same way she talks about her connection to Lenny Kaye. She eats happily at a noted Japanese restaurant, and just as happily she munches brown toast and olive oil just about everywhere. She loves peanut butter, sardines, and fine sake and great coffee. She is not name-dropping to impress anyone. She loves what she loves, she doesn't question why or worry about what anyone else might think about her choices. She is just utterly unselfconscious. And utterly amazing. And, perhaps most importantly, she writes as if touched by the divine. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book.
"They float through these pages often without explanation. Writers and their process. Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with them all, but in the end is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be so? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions."
One thing that I never doubted: this is an authentic voice of a deeply felt existence; an honest to goodness struggle with loss and memory and loneliness and love. Thanks for the map, Patti.
Patti Smith carries us through her esoteric stories of the past and present in this short story/essay collection. M Train reads like an internal journey, a solo exploration. She recalls cafes visited all around the world, writing or simply sitting and reminiscing while drinking an insane amount of coffee that makes my own addiction to caffeine seem laughable. While Smith seems completely content with her own company and the adventures she undertakes alone, there’s still an underlying sadness when recollecting the loved ones she’s lost and the memories that still haunt her.
-What are you writing?
I looked up at her, somewhat surprised. I had absolutely no idea.
Ultimately, this accurately sums up this non-linear story collection. Random, non-cohesive thoughts that bounce around her lifetime from past to present with no indication of time. It is possible for randomness to possess interest and there is no doubt that Patti Smith has led a most interesting life, such as the descriptions of her trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in northwest French Guiana to visit the remains of a French penal colony where criminals were kept. Of all the places in the world to visit though, only Patti Smith would decide to visit an old abandoned prison at the end of the world. Nevertheless, it was interesting, but while it was all very informative and her writing is forever fluid, none of it ever felt as if it had much substance. Her descriptions of her trip to Germany to attend a conference with the Continental Drift Club, of which she is a member strangely enough, were fascinating but then she goes on to describe how on her return trip home she decided to stay in London to binge-watch some crime shows on the BBC. Fascinating and then… not.
Just Kids was stunning and poignant and her writing transported the reader back to a long past period of time. While her writing is still top-notch and her talent is undeniable, M Train was simply too meandering and tangential for my liking. The triviality of these stories are clearly meaningful to her since our experiences in life are what make us who we are today, but the importance is easily lost when not experienced firsthand but only recapped from memory.
‘I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realize, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology.’
~ Patti Smith
There’s a cowpoke haunting both her sleep and daydreams. Antagonizing her creative flow, egging her on. He meanders throughout the book, just inside wakefulness.
With husband Fred Smith, she tours the places written of by her literary heroes, bringing them tokens, photos, words and making her own collection of same. Rustic roads, dilapidated structures, foreign languages, unorthodox modes of travel, mostly foot, and danger, they sought on. After his death, she continued and does still. Her quirky desire to find locations mentioned in books, fictitious or not. To visit them, meditate there, photograph and write of them. A writer’s chair, an abandoned well, cafe.
These are the snippets, journal entries brought forth with black coffee, brown bread & olive oil in Cafe ‘Ino and the numerous cafes of her travels. Dreams and travels. Observations and ruminations.
Holed up in hotels as she is called upon to do readings, talks, she caters to her fixation with detective shows, pantomiming along with them. “When they had a chop, I ordered same from room service. If they had a drink, I consulted the mini bar.”
Memories of times with Fred are entwined. (Would have enjoyed the tv show she & Fred conceived “Drunk in the Afternoon” had it ever came to be. He gabfesting with fellow drinkers, she expounding on literary prisoners while drinking coffee.)
Her search for the purported perfect cup of coffee trained her to Mexico, sidelined with a visit to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. A nod to William Burroughs, who tipped her the brew, reminded me of d.a. levy’s own search for such the elixir. I, too, have searched. Paying 20+ a pound, gifted more, to enjoy the perfect balance. Remembering the Jamaican Blue Mountain I drank every morning in Ocho Rios and never since, no matter how badly claimed the beans were. Alas. That was my epitome, my Holy Grail of coffee.
A brilliant, often woeful look into the daily life of one of my heroes. I feel like, were I to happen upon her somewhere, we could share a hot, black cup of coffee and need not say a word.
“I didn’t seek to frame these moments. They passed without souvenir,” ... “What I have lost and cannot find I remember."
~ Patti Smith
All my books this month have been introspective (The Outsider by Colin Wilson, A Field Guide to Melancholy by Jacky Bowring and The Snow Geese by William Fiennes) and this one tied all that existentialism and self exploration together with art (ie music, poetry, literature, photography). Patti Smith appears to have an exceedingly rich inner life, and it made me think about all the thoughts that I have that I just let go. What might happen if I held on to them and captured them? Could I make more of them by just doing that? And what about if I wrote them down, and agonised over getting the perfect wording for them like she is able to? (Scary thought.) But the reminder to pay more attention to my thoughts about details will stick with me. I got a lot of comfort knowing that other people think so deeply about things, and that not only is this ok, but that it is what makes people who they are. Also, being pensive isn't always a bad thing. I think of it as a by-product of being a thinker.
This book may turn people off because of its wanderings from the past to the present to the dreamscapes of the author's mind, but I got on the treadmill and let it take me wherever it went. And it went to very cool places, so please read it.
I also read this as an audiobook, and I think because of the kind of meditative and diary sensibility it would have been better as a paper book.