Ross Bradshaw reviews M Train and finds out he's been wearing the same headgear as Patti Smith.
For some people in Aberdeen sometime in the 70s, their introduction to Patti Smith was a large graffito saying “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, painted up on the back wall of a city centre church. It stayed for quite a while. It’s the sort of thing that punky people did back then. To them Patti Smith was a star.
Forty years on Patti Smith is still a star, rock’n'roll royalty, though any newcomers picking up M Train would be hard pushed to notice that she leads a band. Or that she is a regular act at leftie music tours. The main reference to her role as a singer is when she spends a summer “working” which earns her the money to buy a broken down house by the sea. It is, however, pretty much rock and roll to buy it without a survey I guess.
Smith was visiting the area, Rockaway, in part to get a free coffee from Zak. He’d worked at her favourite Greenwich Village cafe, ‘Ino (correct spelling), and she’d offered to invest in his seaside cafe. I presume she did that, though it was left unclear. Unfortunately the cafe was wiped out in a hurricane as was the boardwalk it stood on. At least in the book the author does not worry about her investment. Rock’n'roll again.
Her love of coffee runs through this book, if it’s not a black coffee at the cafe (always served with brown toast and a small bowl of olive oil – in tribute that’s what I’m having now) it’s a large deli coffee, or another cafe somewhere, in some country. Mostly she visits these countries to go to the graves of authors she loves. In North Africa she visits the forgotten grave of Jean Genet and in England she visited – three times – the well-known grave of Sylvia Plath where she tucked a “small spiral notebook, a purple ribbon, and a cotton lisle sock with a bee embroidered near the top” by the headstone. Hmm.
Throughout the book she obsesses about the writers whose work she loves. After a while you can almost guess who they are. Come on in Murakami, Henry Miller, Paul Bowles… It’s just the right side of wearying, leavened (though there must be a better word) by the melancholia of the book as the spirit of her late husband, the musician Fred Smith is never far away. But she doesn’t half mythologise authors, after meeting two she says “All writers are bums, I murmured. May I be counted among you one day.” One day might she also meet an editor.
Had she met an editor he or she would have stopped so much repetition. I lost count of the times she “grabbed her watch cap” before going out. What is a watch cap, I kept thinking. Google… Doh, it’s the thing she is wearing on the book cover. The same sort of head covering I’ve worn all winter. The nearest, perhaps, I’ll ever get to a rock and roll lifestyle. Still, I would not mind playing in the band... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgNeBNMJFZs
M Train is published by Bloomsbury at £18.99. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Morning Star.