Patti Smith’s M Train is a haunted text about memory, loss, growing old in the absence of the much-missed dead. It’s a sequel of sorts to Just Kids, Smith’s 2010 memoir about her early years in New York and friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died from AIDS in 1989, and for whom the book was in many ways an extended memorial, lovingly written, deeply affecting. M Train has a less specific focus, tends more to narrative diffusion, diverse meditations on art, literature and love. The dead are many in its pages, which recall her late mother, father, brother and most achingly her husband, former MC5 guitarist, Fred Sonic Smith.
Smith left her beloved New York in 1979, to live with him in Detroit, where they married, started a family and were happy until his sudden death at 45 from heart failure in 1994. When M Train opens, she’s back in New York, living again in Greenwich Village. It’s November, 2011 and her days usually start with a visit to the Cafe ‘Ino, where she daily has the same breakfast – brown toast, a small dish of olive oil, black coffee – reads, writes and remembers.
Fred comes to her at times unbidden, recalled in fragments, fractionally, never entirely whole. We see him as she remembers him, in glimpses, shards of yesterday. Here’s Fred in the room they shared at Detroit’s Book Cadillac Hotel, Fred on a trip to South America, Fred nursing a drink at The Arcade Bar, Fred on a boat somewhere, a tug or trawler. When Hurricane Sandy blows in, she remembers Fred fighting for his life in a Detroit hospital during another storm, in whose howling winds she can hear “his rage and sorrow for being torn away”. He’s forever in her dreams, his smile reaching her from “a place with no beginning or end”, where love endures even as the body rots.
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