M train, p.1
M Train, page 1
ALSO BY PATTI SMITH
Auguries of Innocence
The Coral Sea
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
AND ALFRED A. KNOPF CANADA
Copyright © 2015 by Patti Smith
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Knopf Canada and colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
M train / Patti Smith.
ISBN 978-1-101-87510-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)—
ISBN 978-1-101-87511-7 (eBook)
1. Smith, Patti.
2. Women rock musicians—United States—Biography.
3. Rock musicians—United States—Biography. I. Title.
ML420.S672A3 2015 782.42166092—
dc23 [B] 2015012904
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Smith, Patti, author
M train / Patti Smith.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
eBook ISBN 978-0-345-81547-7
1. Smith, Patti. 2. Rock musicians—United States—Biography.
ML420.S672A3 2015 782.42166092 C2015-903822-7
eBook ISBN 9781101875117
Cover photograph © Claire Alexandra Hatfield
Cover design by Carol Devine Carson
Also by Patti Smith
The Flea Draws Blood
Hill of Beans
Clock with No Hands
Wheel of Fortune
How I Lost the Wind-Up Bird
Her Name Was Sandy
Tempest Air Demons
A Dream of Alfred Wegener
Road to Larache
How Linden Kills the Thing She Loves
Valley of the Lost
The Hour of Noon
A Note About the Author
IT’S NOT SO EASY writing about nothing.
That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream. Vaguely handsome, intensely laconic, he was balancing on a folding chair, leaning backwards, his Stetson brushing the edge of the dun-colored exterior of a lone café. I say lone, as there appeared to be nothing else around except an antiquated gas pump and a rusting trough ornamented with a necklace of horseflies slung above the last dregs of its stagnant water. There was no one around, either, but he didn’t seem to mind; he just pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes and kept on talking. It was the same kind of Silverbelly Open Road model that Lyndon Johnson used to wear.
—But we keep on going, he continued, fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation. It’s an addiction, like playing the slots, or a game of golf.
—It’s a lot easier to talk about nothing, I said.
He didn’t outright ignore my presence, but he did fail to respond.
—Well, anyway, that’s my two cents.
—You’re just about to pack it in, toss the clubs in a river, when you hit your stride, the ball rolls straight in the cup, and the coins fill your inverted cap.
The sun caught the edge of his belt buckle, projecting a flash that shimmered across the desert plain. A shrill whistle sounded, and as I stepped to the right I caught sight of his shadow spilling a whole other set of sophisms from an entirely different angle.
—I been here before, haven’t I?
He just sat there staring out at the plain.
Son of a bitch, I thought. He’s ignoring me.
—Hey, I said, I’m not the dead, not a shade passing. I’m flesh and blood here.
He pulled a notebook out of his pocket and started writing.
—You got to at least look at me, I said. After all, it is my dream.
I drew closer. Close enough to see what he was writing. He had his notebook open to a blank page and three words suddenly materialized.
Nope, it’s mine.
—Well, I’ll be damned, I murmured. I shaded my eyes and stood there looking out toward what he was seeing—dust clouds flatbed tumbleweed white sky—a whole lot of nothing.
—The writer is a conductor, he drawled.
I wandered off, leaving him to expound on the twisting track of the mind’s convolutions. Words that lingered then fell away as I boarded a train of my own that dropped me off fully clothed in my rumpled bed.
Opening my eyes, I rose, staggered into the bathroom, and splashed cold water on my face in one swift motion. I slid on my boots, fed the cats, grabbed my watch cap and old black coat, and headed out toward the road many times taken, across the wide avenue to Bedford Street and a small Greenwich Village café.
FOUR CEILING FANS spinning overhead.
The Café ’Ino is empty save for the Mexican cook and a kid named Zak who sets me up with my usual order of brown toast, a small dish of olive oil, and black coffee. I huddle in my corner, still wearing my coat and watch cap. It’s 9 a.m. I’m the first one here. Bedford Street as the city awakens. My table, flanked by the coffee machine and the front window, affords me a sense of privacy, where I withdraw into my own atmosphere.
The end of November. The small café feels chilly. So why are the fans turning? Maybe if I stare at them long enough my mind will turn as well.
It’s not so easy writing about nothing.
I can hear the sound of the cowpoke’s slow and authoritative drawl. I scribble his phrase on my napkin. How can a fellow get your goat in a dream and then have the grit to linger? I feel a need to contradict him, not just a quick retort but with action. I look down at my hands. I’m sure I could write endlessly about nothing. If only I had nothing to say.
After a time Zak places a fresh cup before me.
—This is the last time I’ll be serving you, he says solemnly.
He makes the best coffee around, so I am sad to hear.
—Why? Are you going somewhere?
—I’m going to open a beach café on the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach.
—A beach café! What do you know, a beach café!
I stretch my legs and watch as Zak performs his morning tasks. He could not have known that I once harbored a dream of having a café of my own. I suppose it began with reading of the café life of the Beats, surrealists, and French symbolist poets. There were no cafés where I grew up but they existed within my books and flourished in my daydreams. In 1965 I had come to New York City from South Jersey just to roam around, and nothing seemed more romantic than just to sit and write poetry in a Greenwich Village café. I finally got the courage to enter Caffè Dante on MacDougal Street. Unable to afford a meal, I just drank coffee, but no one seemed to mind. The walls were covered with printed murals of the city
In 1973 I moved into an airy whitewashed room with a small kitchen on that same street, just two short blocks from Caffè Dante. I could crawl out the front window and sit on the fire escape at night and clock the action that flowed through the Kettle of Fish, one of Jack Kerouac’s frequented bars. There was a small stall around the corner on Bleecker Street where a young Moroccan sold fresh rolls, anchovies packed in salt, and bunches of fresh mint. I would rise early and buy supplies. I’d boil water and pour it into a teapot stuffed with mint and spend the afternoons drinking tea, smoking bits of hashish, and rereading the tales of Mohammed Mrabet and Isabelle Eberhardt.
Café ’Ino didn’t exist back then. I would sit by a low window in Caffè Dante that looked out into the corner of a small alley, reading Mrabet’s The Beach Café. A young fish-seller named Driss meets a reclusive, uncongenial codger who has a so-called café with only one table and one chair on a rocky stretch of shore near Tangier. The slow-moving atmosphere surrounding the café so captivated me that I desired nothing more than to dwell within it. Like Driss, I dreamed of opening a place of my own. I thought about it so much I could almost enter it: the Café Nerval, a small haven where poets and travelers might find the simplicity of asylum.
I imagined threadbare Persian rugs on wide-planked floors, two long wood tables with benches, a few smaller tables, and an oven for baking bread. Every morning I would wipe down the tables with aromatic tea like they do in Chinatown. No music no menus. Just silence black coffee olive oil fresh mint brown bread. Photographs adorning the walls: a melancholic portrait of the café’s namesake, and a smaller image of the forlorn poet Paul Verlaine in his overcoat, slumped before a glass of absinthe.
In 1978 I came into a little money and was able to pay a security deposit toward the lease of a one-story building on East Tenth Street. It had once been a beauty parlor but stood empty save for three white ceiling fans and a few folding chairs. My brother, Todd, supervised repairs and we whitewashed the walls and waxed the wood floors. Two wide skylights flooded the space with light. I spent several days sitting beneath them at a card table, drinking deli coffee and plotting my next move. I would need funds for a new toilet and a coffee machine and yards of white muslin to drape the windows. Practical things that usually receded into the music of my imagination.
In the end I was obliged to abandon my café. Two years before, I had met the musician Fred Sonic Smith in Detroit. It was an unexpected encounter that slowly altered the course of my life. My yearning for him permeated everything—my poems, my songs, my heart. We endured a parallel existence, shuttling back and forth between New York and Detroit, brief rendezvous that always ended in wrenching separations. Just as I was mapping out where to install a sink and a coffee machine, Fred implored me to come and live with him in Detroit. Nothing seemed more vital than to join my love, whom I was destined to marry. Saying good-bye to New York City and the aspirations it contained, I packed what was most precious and left all else behind—in the wake, forfeiting my deposit and my café. I didn’t mind. The solitary hours I’d spent drinking coffee at the card table, awash in the radiance of my café dream, were enough for me.
Some months before our first wedding anniversary Fred told me that if I promised to give him a child he would first take me anywhere in the world. Without hesitation I chose Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America. I had long wished to see the remains of the French penal colony where hard-core criminals were once shipped before being transferred to Devil’s Island. In The Thief’s Journal Jean Genet had written of Saint-Laurent as hallowed ground and of the inmates incarcerated there with devotional empathy. In his Journal he wrote of a hierarchy of inviolable criminality, a manly saintliness that flowered at its crown in the terrible reaches of French Guiana. He had ascended the ladder toward them: reform school, petty thief, and three-time loser; but as he was sentenced the prison he’d held in such reverence was closed, deemed inhumane, and the last living inmates were returned to France. Genet served his time in Fresnes Prison, bitterly lamenting that he would never attain the grandeur that he aspired to. Devastated, he wrote: I am shorn of my infamy.
Genet was imprisoned too late to join the brotherhood he had immortalized in his work. He was left outside the prison walls like the lame boy in Hamelin who was denied entrance into a child’s paradise because he arrived too late to enter its doors.
At seventy, he was reportedly in poor health and most likely would never go there himself. I envisioned bringing him its earth and stone. Though often amused by my quixotic notions, Fred did not make light of this self-imposed task. He agreed without argument. I wrote William Burroughs, whom I had known since my early twenties. Close to Genet and possessing his own romantic sensibility, William promised to assist me in delivering the stones at the proper time.
Preparing for our trip Fred and I spent our days in the Detroit Public Library studying the history of Suriname and French Guiana. We looked forward to exploring a place neither of us had been, and we mapped the first stages of our journey: the only available route was a commercial flight to Miami, then a local airline to take us through Barbados, Grenada, and Haiti, finally disembarking in Suriname. We would have to find our way to a river town outside the capital city and once there hire a boat to cross the Maroni River into French Guiana. We plotted our steps late into the night. Fred bought maps, khaki clothing, traveler’s checks, and a compass; cut his long, lank hair; and bought a French dictionary. When he embraced an idea he looked at things from every angle. He did not read Genet, however. He left that up to me.
Fred and I flew on a Sunday to Miami and stayed for two nights in a roadside motel called Mr. Tony’s. There was a small black-and-white television bolted near the low ceiling that worked by inserting quarters. We ate red beans and yellow rice in Little Havana and visited Crocodile World. The short stay readied us for the extreme heat we were about to face. Our trip was a lengthy process, as all passengers were obliged to deplane in Grenada and Haiti while the hold was searched for smuggled goods. We finally landed in Suriname at dawn; a handful of young soldiers armed with automatic weapons waited as we were herded into a bus that transported us to a vetted hotel. The first anniversary of a military coup that overthrew the democratic government on February 25, 1980, was looming: an anniversary only a few days before our own. We were the only Americans around and they assured us we were under their protection.
After we spent a few days bending in the heat of the capital city of Paramaribo, a guide drove us 150 kilometers to the town of Albina on the west bank of the river bordering French Guiana. The pink sky was veined in lightning. Our guide found a young boy who agreed to take us across the Maroni River by pirogue, a long, dugout canoe. Packed prudently, our bags were quite manageable. We pushed off in a light rain that swiftly escalated into a torrential downpour. The boy handed me an umbrella and warned us not to trail our fingers in the water surrounding the low-slung wooden boat. I suddenly noticed the river teeming with tiny black fish. Piranha! He laughed as I quickly withdrew my hand.
In an hour or so the boy dropped us off at the foot of a muddy embankment. He dragged his pirogue onto land and joined some workers taking cover beneath a length of black oilcloth stretched over four wooden posts. They seemed amused by our momentary confusion and pointed us in the direction of the main road. As we struggled up a slippery knoll, the calypso beat of Mighty Swallow’s “Soca Dance” wafting from a boom box was all but drowned by the insistent rain. Completely drenched we tramped through the empty town, finally taking cover in what seemed to be the only existing bar. The bartender served me coffee and Fred had a beer. Two men were drinking calvados. The afternoon slipped by as I consumed several cups of coffee while Fred engaged in a broken French-English conversation with a leathery
The Hôtel Galibi was spartan yet comfortable. A small bottle of watered-down cognac and two plastic cups were set on the dresser. Spent, we slept, even as the returning rain beat relentlessly upon the corrugated tin roof. There were bowls of coffee waiting for us when we awoke. The morning sun was strong. I left our clothes to dry on the patio. There was a small chameleon melting into the khaki color of Fred’s shirt. I spread the contents of our pockets on a small table. A wilting map, damp receipts, dismembered fruits, Fred’s ever-present guitar picks.
Around noon a cement worker drove us outside the ruins of the Saint-Laurent prison. There were a few stray chickens scratching in the dirt and an overturned bicycle, but no one seemed to be around. Our driver entered with us through a low stone archway and then just slipped away. The compound had the air of a tragically defunct boomtown—one that had mined the souls and shipped their husks to Devil’s Island. Fred and I moved about in alchemical silence, mindful not to disturb the reigning spirits.
In search of the right stones I entered the solitary cells, examining the faded graffiti tattooing the walls. Hairy balls, cocks with wings, the prime organ of Genet’s angels. Not here, I thought, not yet. I looked around for Fred. He had maneuvered through the high grasses and overgrown palms, finding a small graveyard. I saw him paused before a headstone that read Son your mother is praying for you. He stood there for a long time looking up at the sky. I left him alone and inspected the outbuildings, finally choosing the earthen floor of the mass cell to gather the stones. It was a dank place the size of a small airplane hangar. Heavy, rusted chains were anchored into the walls illuminated by slim shafts of light. Yet there was still some scent of life: manure, earth, and an array of scuttling beetles.
by Patti Smith / Poetry / Memoir have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes