I saw Patti Smith Friday night, September 15, 2016, at the beautiful Congregation Beth Elohim synagogue in Brooklyn reading from her recent memoir M Train. She is an institution in the city and was clearly adored by the 1,400 crammed into the space.
She brought Lenny Kaye along and, between the readings, they played 5 or 6 songs including a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” Here’s a 1976 version from Boston that segues briefly into “Louie, Louie” at the end.
Patti, Lenny and the crowd closed with a rousing “Because the Night”, a song she and Bruce Springsteen wrote about her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith.
It was a delightful night. She’s quite charming and seems like someone you’d want to talk with over a cup of coffee. Her extemporaneous asides were self deprecating, humorous, and witty. After stumbling over a sentence she noted “Hey I wrote it, doesn’t mean I can pronounce it!” By the way, the paperback of M Train includes a new ending chapter that was not in the 2015 hardcover.
An aside and disclaimer…The thoughts below may very well be nothing more than a projection of what I want to be true…
Today I sit outside on our little deck reading M Train. I’m struck by how she remembers scenes. They are descriptive of course, but I get the strong feeling that they are remembrances through a hazy lens, intentionally coated with petroleum jelly. Her goal is not to recreate the scene but to interpret it like an impressionist painter. She picks and chooses, choreographs, and curates what is and what is not of essence.
I imagine a sense of time where memory is elastic and purposely romantic. Where what is important is less about accuracy and more about inhabiting a world in which one is both a participant and a director. It is akin to my axiom to never ruin a good story with the truth.
But she is after truth in the sense that she gets to the core, if not the perfect details, of the experience. To claim that she is not faithfully portraying the scenes misses the point. Did Van Gogh faithfully paint his sunflowers and are they not the most beautiful you’ve ever seen? M Train is like a deep satisfying dream, perhaps a story filtered through an image of an opium den or maybe a channeling of the ghost of William Blake. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
This is not really a review per se as I’m less than halfway through the book. It’s more about building myself a frame of reference as I slowly make my way through, savoring each little nugget. Obviously M Train is highly recommended.
If you are interested in learning a bit more about Patti I highly recommend checking out the brilliant Maria Popova at her fascinating website Brain Pickings. In this post she writes about when Patti really knew that she was an artist. The quote from Patti’s delightful first memoir Just Kids suggests that my interpretation makes some sense.
The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.
What a beautiful swan she is.