Patti Smith follows up with M Train

Patti Smith will soon be doing a concert tour following the release of M Train.
Patti Smith will soon be doing a concert tour following the release of M Train. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Revered for her influence on punk rock, Patti Smith proved herself to be a literary heavyweight as well with her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

She delves further into her literary persona in a follow-up book, M Train, a meditation on memory, loss and her worldwide quest for a perfect cup of coffee.

Just Kids offered a tender account of her relationship with avant-garde photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in a memoir of artistic and sexual discovery but also of the gritty New York of the 1960s and 1970s that stirred their creative energies.

In M Train, out last Tuesday, she reflects on her life's other great, late love, rocker Fred "Sonic" Smith of the band MC5, for whom she relocated to Detroit after they married in 1980.

She returned to New York with their two children after he died in 1994. But M Train is less tied to a city than Just Kids. Instead, the now 68-year-old Smith goes back into her memories as she fondly recalls trips to places such as French Guiana, Tangier, Tokyo and Veracruz, the last of which was reputed to have the world's best coffee.

Yet M Train is also a book about loss, not only of her husband but also of seemingly unrelated anchors in her life, including a club devoted to the study of Alfred Wegener, the German scientist best known for the Continental Drift theory, and a cafe in Greenwich Village where Smith would sit at the same table every morning and order black coffee and brown toast with olive oil.

Upset over a lost coat that bore sentimental value, she asks in turn, "Do our lost possessions mourn us?", wondering if the coat remembered their times "asleep on buses from Vienna to Prague, nights at the opera, walks by the sea" .

"Why is it that we lose the things we love and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we're gone?" she writes.

Absent from M Train is virtually any direct mention of Smith's music, from her 1975 album Horses, which is often ranked among rock's most influential, to her best-known song, Because The Night. Unlike so many rock memoirists, Smith has no interest in boasting of excesses.

In M Train, she obliquely refers to shows as "jobs" and, to explain how in 1978, she was able to lease a building in New York, writes that she "came into a little money".

"I feel embarrassed when people call me a musician," she said last Saturday at The New Yorker Festival ahead of the book's release.

She said at the event that she can "play a few chords", but that she considered herself a "performer" whose skill was working up crowds.

Smith, who grew up in working- class southern New Jersey, said that neither of her parents completed high school but belonged to a generation that considered reading its entertainment.

Her literary aspirations were born after her childhood discovery of French doomed poet Arthur Rimbaud and she has long published her own verse along with music.

On why she wrote the latest book, she joked that her husband was envious of the attention to Mapplethorpe via Just Kids.

She is following the release of M Train with a concert tour of Europe and the United States to mark the 40th anniversary of Horses. With her love of travel, Smith was asked if New York remained her home. She said that she did not feel fully at home anywhere, but returned to one of her book's themes.

For all of the city's drawbacks, Smith said, a New Yorker rarely has to walk more than a block for a cup of coffee.


• M Train is retailing at Books Kinokuniya for $32.05 (paperback).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Patti Smith follows up with M Train'. Print Edition | Subscribe