Taking the M Train

Patti Smith

One of the things few people know about me is that since 1979 I’ve been a huge fan of poet Patti Smith. When I discovered her, I had no idea who she was or what she was about. I’d just moved back to the US from a three-month musical stint in England and my attention was on getting a record deal in the ever-shrinking world of what was then called, more than a little deprecatingly, MOR, or Middle Of the Road. Although I’d been introduced to Punk in England, I wasn’t at all fond of it and, when I came home I was met with the less confrontational, more palatable New Wave. Apart from Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, and Billy Joel, I knew nothing about what was going on musically in New York. Because my then managers were steering me into what they considered to be the more financially lucrative L.A. waters, Patti Smith the musician flew totally beneath my musical radar.

During one of my many afternoon-long safaris through Waldenbooks at our local mall, I came across a copy of Smith’s book, Babel. It was the cover that grabbed my attention, of course. I’d always been drawn to androgyny in women and Smith possessed that allure in spades. As I sat crosslegged on the floor in the poetry aisle, I read as much of the book as I could, then realized I had to buy it so that it could be at hand at all times. Through the following years, despite the fact that I bought her other books, my copy of Babel became annotated, tattered and dogeared, and eventually the cover came loose. I taped it back on, but it kept falling off. By the time it got lost in The Big Dump of 2001, it was more cello tape than cover.

Patti reads from Babel

The odd thing is, I never really became a huge fan of her music, although I certainly like it. My admiration has always been for her writing, her photography, and her mind. Who she is as a person was always the main thing, the way she lives her life as art, her way of viewing the world, and her circle of friends and colleagues. But as we both got older (she is in fact five years older than me), I saw a kindred spirit: a woman raising two children, a young widow, an artist forced by death, loss, grief and responsibility into a long creative dry spell, and a woman who struggled to pull herself out of that drought while continuing to confound those who would be stupid and narrow enough to hang a label on her.

On the surface no one would ever suspect that we have so much in common, or that I can relate to her in so many ways. While in her early peak years she was tall, thin and menacing in an oddly androgynous “bad boy” way. I on the other hand was short, red-haired, and pixie-like, about as menacing as Puck or Peter Pan: tomboyish, but not gender-bending by any stretch of the imagination. But I recognized her as a kind of alter-ego, the kind of image I would have liked to have had. Best of all, she has evolved in a way that I ardently admire as she continues to inspire. She digs getting older. She’s there for her family and friends. She is the embodiment of what it means to be an artist. She has come through exceedingly difficult times and she is happy to communicate all of it to us in an unflinchingly honest, sometimes almost brutal way.

“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag…
The issue of gender was never my biggest concern;
my biggest concern was doing good work.
When the feminist movement really got going,
I wasn’t an active part of it because I was more
concerned with my own mental pursuits.”
Patti Smith

Throughout my life, most of my role models have been male, not by virtue of their gender, but because of their insistence on living life on their own terms. For this same reason, Patti Smith is one of my few female role models. She’s a hands-on mentor who inspires me viscerally. As she evolves and ages, her warmth, understanding and compassion deepen, and she continues to inspire me not only to carry on writing both books and music, but to claim my own life as my canvas, my camera, my manuscript.


On October 6th of this year Patti will be releasing her new book, M Train, a sequel to her 2010 memoir Just Kids, which I gobbled up in one sitting. This sequel promises to reveal more about the years she kicked around the streets of New York City, a time of her life that I find particularly fascinating.

“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, through prose that shifts fluidly between dreams and reality, past and present, 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 exquisitely told memoir, one augmented by stunning black-and-white Polaroids taken by Smith herself.” – (Book blurb)

Continue Reading