Confessions of an art nun: how Patti Smith gave her all

M Train is an extroadinary book about creation and the sheer loneliness of making art.

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We knew from Just Kids that Patti Smith is a believer – in art, above all things. In art, at the cost of all things. That memoir of the boho dance was charming because she was so easily taken in. The dreams she held close to her heart became her reality. She was the struggling, unwashed artist when New York was still a dirty old town full of secrets and promise. She scrabbled money together, she wrote poetry, she fell in love with Robert Mapplethorpe.

What is amazing about Just Kids is Smith’s rose-tinted contact lenses, which she must have glued to her eyes. She writes brilliantly, she loves unconditionally, every­thing is meaningful and humour escapes her completely. As everyone she knows becomes famous, she glosses over the commodification of art and music, holding on to Rimbaud and Baudelaire and trying to be Dylan. She does not have one harsh word to say about Mapplethorpe, the bisexual photographer whom she lived with in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In her mind, a sexual relationship becomes romantic and artistic codependence. Some would simply say that he used her as he seems to have used everyone else. She appeared more bemused by his social aspiration than his sexuality.

Mapplethorpe, whom she remained devoted to, was not exactly a nice guy. Many consider his fetishism of black men as racist. But talent is everything to her. Smith was devastated by his death. She loves almost without question. Living with his loss permeates M Train.

Those expecting a sequel to Just Kids or any kind of “what happened next” will find M Train baffling. Instead, it is an extraordinary book about creation and what happens in the spaces between making art: the sheer loneliness of it. You could read this book and not know that Patti Smith is a rock star who changed lives 40 years ago with her album Horses. Here was this shaman who gave women all these possibilities. Her voice – part incantation, part anger, part sorrow – spoke its gender-fluid lyrics. Her lust was for more than sex. It was for something far bigger. That opening refrain – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” – staked it out, queerly and defiantly. I knew the first time I heard her that everything could change.

None of this is even mentioned in M Train. It’s just her day job: “I just think, you know, that I have a band and go out and serve the people but in my daily life I write, read, feed my cats, roam the world and drink coffee,” she writes. And this is what she does. Coffee is her drug of choice in cafés in cities from Berlin to Tokyo. Everything comes back to coffee. It is sacramental for someone who worships the Beat poets, who hangs out with William Burroughs, who goes to Tangier to meet Paul Bowles. Coffee features in her world of constant pilgrimages. She goes from grave to grave, paying homage to her saints, Genet, Kurosawa, Plath, Mishima and Rimbaud among them.

In between visits, she holes up in hotels alone, watching Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse and CSI: Miami. This is weird and funny but unintentionally so. Mostly her life is shot though with recollections: of Mapplethorpe, of her brother, of her husband, the guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Memories come back to her, as vivid as her Polaroids: the happiness she had with Fred, for whom she gave up everything, as she does for all the men she admires. Her devotion is absolute. Now she is a kind of art nun. She writes of what excites her desire – and it is art.

Great writers possess her. She reads Sebald or Murakami and for days they are her world. Maybe this is why she loves her detective shows. She is looking for clues for how it’s done: the art of taking someone over, the art of becoming. Again, she loves what she loves with no critical distance. She describes this process to readers, who may not be familiar with what she has read. Does the reader want to be familiar with her? she asks. “I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions.”

This is, remarkably, what this work is. Her world is her mind, a mind not much preoccupied with material things. She buys a house in Rockaway Beach, she remembers washing Fred’s shirts and she misses touching living things as her children are grown and gone.

A mind full of dead people, a life lived in solitude. But this is Patti Smith, a woman who copied her moves from male rock stars, only to become herself, alone. She has to know the thing to become it. In performance, she is transcendent. She writes of “portal-hopping” and looks for openings through which one may slip from one world to another. They are there in books, in the Orphic mirrors of Cocteau; they are there in the ways people move through walls. “All doors,” she says, “are open to the believer.”

This is her faith, her life’s work. An ageing woman, now with “iron-coloured” hair and aching joints, she believes absolutely in the power of art. The price she has paid to become a serious artist is hers and no one else’s. She is transformed by art as she transforms it. This, she knows, is the real deal. Because she lives it.

M Train by Patti Smith is published by Bloomsbury (272pp, £18.99)

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?