- The Gitanes Matchbox
254 Pages; Print, $25.00
There has always been something mysterious, enigmatic, baffling for me about Patti Smith. Her image—projected so powerfully in Just Kids (2010)—is that of the lanky, curious urchin who is not afraid to say “ain’t,” who can mix the most vernacular immediacy with a more fastidious linguistic elegance. Her songs vibrate to the sensibility of the street, yet the prose in M Train seems so deliberately fashioned, poised, calculated, polished. Her world, she explains, comes on “a platter filled with allusions” and the dish she serves is sometimes crowded with them. The discrepancy between the scrappy urchin persona and the story she tells is so dramatic that I’ve heard the malicious gossip of ghostwriter rumors.
Like the singer Bruce Springsteen, Smith identifies with exploited working stiffs and the underprivileged with an urgency that underlines her rhythm. Like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, also, her sound can twang with a whining, nasal anguish of populist complaint, the expression of an impossible romantic yearning. Sometimes, especially now, her speaking voice can grate like a heel dragging on gravel.
With Tom Waits, she has been connected to a post-Beat tradition. She refers to the Beats as apostles; to herself as their orphaned offspring. Admiring William Burroughs, she shares his ambition of exposing the social sham that allows us to rationalize our wasteful consumerism. She remembers visiting Burroughs in M Train, watching him shoot target practice. Burroughs was a marksman to the end and like him Smith seems to be a straight shooter, which may be why she presents herself to the world unadorned, without the cosmetic covers we expect from celebrity.
Burroughs claimed in the “Atrophied Preface” to Naked Lunch (1959) that his experimental ambition was to write entirely in the present, without memory. M Train is a book of memories and one of the charming stories she tells is of voyaging to Veracruz, Mexico on Burroughs’s recommendation in search of the perfect cup of coffee. Quite unlike Burroughs though she admits to a “fascination with melancholia,” which can lead to a sentimentality usually absent from Burroughs’s more brutal world.
The beginning of M Train is particularly enticing. Smith relates a dream in a café featuring a laconic cowboy wearing his Stetson pulled down to his eyes, the sun glinting off his belt buckle. Writing in a little pocket notebook, he leans backwards on a folding chair and declares, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” The proposition insinuates the absurd. Writing is an addiction he observes, staring out into desert tumbleweed and white sky. This cowboy seems to have wandered out of a Sam Shepard play—Eddie in Fool for Love (1983) or the earlier Cowboy Mouth, performed in its initial production in 1971 by Shepard himself and his lover at that time, Patti Smith. The cowboy in Smith’s dream is a prop, an arrogant dramatic tease who flatly advises Smith that she is merely sharing his dream. This strange, metaphysical parable ends abruptly with the cowboy’s drawling commonplace: “The writer is a conductor.” The scene sets the stage for us with characteristic economy and sharp detail.
In fact, the reader immediately is caught in her dream. She wakes and proceeds to the Café ‘Ino on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village for her usual black coffee, toast and olive oil. Since the early Renaissance, the coffeehouse has been the place where progressive, often revolutionary ideas were exchanged, where a new code of manners could be displayed. With its orange awning, the Café ‘Ino and the quest for black coffee is an organizing motif in Smith’s narrative. She goes there to write but staring at the ceiling fans, she worries that “It is not so easy writing about nothing.”
Using as a segue her own dream of owning a café´ she relates the history of a bizarre honeymoon journey she took to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana where the French had built a penal colony for the sort of prisoner they hoped would...