Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’ Is a High Bohemian Meditation on Mortality

Patti Smith is a great artist, but she might be a greater fan of art, in all its many forms. Susan Sontag wrote that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” and you get the idea that Smith’s very existence is the single best example of the type of engagement Sontag was describing (even she never quite broke herself of the hermeneutics habit). “Personally,” the musician, writer, and visual artist confesses in her new book, M Train, “I’m not much for symbolism. 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, become one with somewhere else, slip a wreath on a steeple top solely because I wished it.”

M Train is nothing so much as a testament to that idea: not just Smith’s love of art, but her willful and wholehearted immersion in it. While her bestselling, National Book Award-winning Just Kids was a largely straightforward memoir of her youth in New York, the volume that’s been positioned as its sequel is less an account of what Smith has done than a simulation of what it is like to live inside her brain. Or, as she describes the book in a phrase quoted in its publicity materials, it’s “a roadmap to my life.” In one sense, that means M Train is set at cafés and cultural landmarks around the world, and that her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, is a recurring character. But none of those memories can quite compete with Patti Smith’s enthusiasm for creative genius, the force that energizes every page.

In the first chapter alone, she mentions The Divine Comedy, Jack Kerouac, Isabelle Eberhardt, Mohammed Mrabet and his book The Beach Cafe, Paul Verlaine, Jean Genet and The Thief’s Journal, William S. Burroughs, The Harder They Come, and John Coltrane. This isn’t pseudo-intellectual name-dropping; it’s Smith perceiving and making sense of the world through the lives and works of artists she loves — and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. When she reaches for a metaphor, she’s most likely to find it in an image from a poem or a film. Describing jet lag, she writes, “My dreams were like outtakes from Spellbound: liquefying columns, straining saplings, and irreducible theorems turning into a swirl of heart-stopping weather.”

Smith isn’t just an artist who appreciates the work of other artists; there’s nothing remarkable about that. Even the word I used earlier, “fan,” might be too pedestrian. It doesn’t convey enough respect for the way she has elevated her love of art into an art form of its own. She’s like a high priestess of the Church of Artistic Genius, traveling thousands of miles on pilgrimages to serve heroes she worships as gods, living and dead. For her, the mere opportunity to photograph Frida Kahlo’s dresses or Herman Hesse’s typewriter is worth hours on a plane. Patti and Fred go to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, to collect a bit of earth in hopes of bringing it to an elderly, infirm Genet. Years later, in England, she leaves offerings at Sylvia Plath’s burial site; in Japan, she washes the grave of Osamu Dazai. Though she doesn’t dwell on it, the distance she perceives between their powers and her own is unmistakable. “All writers are bums,” she says aloud at the end of the latter chapter. “May I be counted among you one day.”

You could dissect Smith’s tastes and find them a bit too, well, tasteful. (You could also dissect her language and find it comically grand; unfortunately, some critic is sure to miss the whole point of Patti Smith by doing both.) Though her best-known objects of worship are 19th-century Romantic and Symbolist poets — Blake, Rimbaud, Baudelaire — her grasp of literature, music, film, and visual art span centuries and continents. Smith knows all the classics. She spends one of her longest reveries trying to imagine a place Haruki Murakami mentions in passing, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, regrets allowing herself the boldness of sitting in Roberto Bolaño’s chair, and describes the “melancholic menace” of the Fleet Foxes song “Your Protector.” She dreams about Medea, references various operas, knows the filmographies of Pasolini and Ozu. But you can’t exactly call her a snob; she unabashedly adores TV detectives, and not just the “prestige” ones. No work permeates the book (or, seemingly, her imagination) more than The Killing. The American version.

What ties together the things Patti Smith loves — works of art and works more commonly seen as pure entertainment, but also the objects she tenderly describes throughout the book: a black coat, a beach bungalow — is their romance, their intensity, their dignity, their earnestness. There is a hint of poetry in each of them. They might be humorous, but they’re not cynical. Even if they’re ugly (as, for example, some of Pasolini’s films are), it’s in a deceptively beautiful way. They are immersive; in fact, they reject any more casual variety of engagement. It isn’t just that you can “get lost” in them, to use Smith’s phrase; it’s that you have to.

By naming such a vast network of influences, she is indeed giving dreamy, young readers a roadmap to her haute bohemian life, with coffee and travel and dreams and Fred and the Rockaways forming the interstates that connect a globe’s worth of internal and external landmarks. Though Smith does keep various treasured talismans, for the most part, she eschews materialism in favor of the life of the mind. But that’s probably because she has enough money these days to focus on art instead. (To be fair, the practicalities of survival get plenty of consideration in Just Kids.) This is part of what makes M Train bittersweet: it’s such an attractive roadmap, though in an economy (and a New York City) that feels more hostile to artists than ever, it seems impossible to follow.

As sad as I am about that, I can’t hold it against the book. I still want to vacation in Patti Smith’s mind, even if it mostly makes me jealous. If we can’t have nice things anymore, if we can’t build lives like hers for ourselves, we should at least have a record of them. Because M Train isn’t just a roadmap; it’s an archive, too. It’s Smith, a few years short of 70 and often all alone and haunted by so many intimate ghosts, preparing herself for precisely the thing we make art to confront — and defy: mortality. Toward the end of the book, she writes:

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. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.

Like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which I can only imagine Smith watched and adored, M Train is a monument to the timeless creations of humans doomed to die. It’s hard to imagine how anyone in our long history can have loved them as much as she does.