To date her best known book is her highly acclaimed 1996 memoir, Just Kids, which explored her early days in New York City, particularly her intense friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Her latest memoir, M Train, is a beautiful rumination on growing old, the passing of time and the inevitable loss of beloveds. In Smith’s case that’s her husband, the musician Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, who died prematurely at the age of 45; her brother Todd who she lost sometime after; her parents; and other assorted people in her life, many of them well known writers and musicians.
M Train exudes a dream-like quality as she details her wanderings from her New York City apartment to her favourite coffee shop – where she sits at the same table each day, getting cranky if anyone takes her spot.
She ponders on her dreams, her travels and random objects in her life – her cats, her books, an old coat passed on by a friend, a chair of her deceased father. Interspersed throughout the narrative are photographs taken with her polaroid camera.
Her roamings over the earth are detailed too – Berlin for a conference; Mexico City to give a talk at the home of Frida Kahlo; Japan to see her friend who has been helping the victims of the tsunami; London where she holes herself up in a hotel room watching a marathon run of her favourite dectective shows.
All the while Smith meditates on her dreams, her writing, the past and present, her need for coffee, a childhood illness, a mission to carry stones to a beloved writer’s grave.
It’s not only people but also places whose loss she laments – she falls in love with Rockaway Beach in Queens, a short train ride from Manhattan and on a whim purchases a little wreck of a boarded up cottage. When Rockaway is devastated by the 2012 Hurricane Sandy it destroys the boardwalk and the coffee shop opened by friend Zac. Her little purchase miraculously remains standing but she mourns this loss too, another among many.
This is a sublimely beautiful read and Patti Smith has now cemented herself as a writer as firmly as she did a musician in the 1970s.
And if she had to choose between rock and writing? “I wouldn’t hesitate,” she said. “I couldn’t live without writing,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent interview.