In 2010, musician Patti Smith published Just Kids, a radiant memoir about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives as bohemian babes-in-the-woods in New York City. Set in the 1960s and ’70s, the story of their coming-of-age as artists—Smith’s first full-length work of prose—won the National Book Award.
In her new memoir, M Train, Smith trades the circus atmosphere of the psychedelic era for the here and now, offering readers a remarkably intimate look at her life in New York City. Throughout M Train she bounces between home and her favorite Greenwich Village café, where she writes in her notebook and ponders the past. Memories of her Philadelphia childhood, her extensive travels and her marriage to the late musician Fred “Sonic” Smith provide points of departure for the narrative.
Not as tightly constructed as Just Kids, M Train has a meandering quality that reflects Smith’s inquisitive, exploratory spirit. Music and speaking engagements make her a frequent flyer, and the journeys she recounts in the book are filled with surreal moments. When she falls ill before giving a talk at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, she’s allowed to rest in Diego Rivera’s bed. During an unexpected rendezvous in Iceland, she sings Buddy Holly songs with chess legend Bobby Fischer. Things are equally uncanny on the homefront. Just weeks before Hurricane Sandy strikes, Smith purchases a run-down bungalow (which she fondly names the Alamo) on Rockaway Beach. Somehow the house survives the storm.
Smith turns 66 while writing M Train, but she’s still a bit of a kid. At home, she falls asleep in her clothes, ignores the mail and neglects household chores. Her writing style is at once poetic and direct. Like her trademark attire—boots, cap, coat—her narratives have a plainspoken beauty that transcends the times. An American original and a magical writer, Smith makes the reader believe in the redemptive power of art.