Nearly halfway into her new memoir, M Train, Patti Smith writes, “I wanted to write a book called Java Head.” Even early on, it seems she should have used that title for this book. After all, she spends approximately one-sixth of the slim memoir’s pages writing of drinking, buying, making, pursuing, and wanting to write an aria or “post-Beat meditation” about coffee. Perhaps she proposed Java Head only to be spurned by her publisher.
When not writing about coffee, M Train casts an admirably wide net, discussing in varying degrees of depth Smith’s unlikely membership in a group dedicated to a German geophysicist, Rockaway Beach in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and her 15-year marriage to the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, her “human angel” and guitarist for the Detroit proto-punk band the MC5.
Taking place mostly in recent years, M Train dips into the past to provide context in the form of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee’s childhood near Philadelphia and the decade-plus that she spent with her husband in Michigan. The significant amount of time she lived in the cities of Brotherly Love and Motors, along with the unmentioned fact that she was born in the Windy one, should disabuse readers who are less familiar with Smith of the idea that she is an incarnate New York City bohemian poet and punk-rock caricature.
Although M Train regales its audience with tales of voyages to worldly locales, including several grave sites and a London hotel used solely to “watch ITV3 mystery dramas,” Smith’s most beloved spot is the Greenwich Village coffee shop Café ’Ino, where she ventures every morning to swill her “substance of choice,” feed on small servings of food, and write. Interestingly, the café is almost always empty. On the rare occasion that it’s not, someone is sitting in “her” corner. The invariability of these instances makes her diurnal visits seem like something out of a David Lynch film.
Those without as much background in world literature and cinema might find Smith’s frequent references to seeming obscurities a bit irksome, though those who are well versed will find Smith all the more relatable. Cat lovers could be vexed by the fact that she repeatedly writes about feeding her three cats (only one of whom she ever describes or gives the name of), but says nothing about who does so when she is on one of her many worldwide excursions. This seems like a detail that she would include, given all the other details she does provide. If nothing else, it would have afforded her the opportunity to introduce another member of her evidently limited social circle.
Nevertheless, any book in which the author tells of gathering stones from a prison in French Guiana for Jean Genet and singing Buddy Holly songs with Bobby Fischer can’t be all bad. As for the title, Smith should have gone with Java Head, and fought for it, if that was what it took.