The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Patti Smith's 'Just Kids' and 'M Train'


Jade doubles down on Patti Smith
Jade doubles down on Patti Smith's books 'Just Kids' and 'M Train' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

A grizzled cowboy, a troubled and beautiful boy, the best coffee lover, a grown Bobby Fisher. The men in Patti Smith's life have cut deep trenches into her memories, like grooves on a record. In her books M Train and Just Kids, it seems as though she's locked into those grooves and must move along the well-worn path with wary eyes that know where she'll end up but unable to stop the kinetic momentum.

While Just Kids takes a chronological journey through Smith's life, love, growth, and heartache with her late partner Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train skitters frenetically among memories, dreams, and conversations triggered most frequently by thoughts of Smith's late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith.

Day breaks and a man is dead in the opening line of Just Kids. A middle-aged woman deals with the passing with resigned grief and goes about the daily chores of life, but a glimmer of beauty reminds her of the loss and Patti Smith's life/love story begins. Knowing where the story ends casts a dark cloud over a bright and lively childhood. Patti is a creative and curious creature who meets a kindred artistic soul who pushes and ignites her passion — for both art and life. The tumultuous and all-consuming friendship between Smith and Mapplethorpe could in other hands be trivialized and dramatized to Kardashian levels. Rendered in Smith's poetic prose, the unique friendship is delicately raw, fiercely tender, and hideously beautiful.

Dreams, sleep-states, and waking life all blur together in M Train. That same deft, artful ability to turn sharp tragedy into beautiful watercolors draws together a series of disconnected memories. A gruff cowpoke waxes poetic about the whys of life in Smith's dreams, and as she wakes up she's enjoying her favorite cup of coffee at her corner table. Or she's on her first solo trip overseas. Or she's enjoying a favorite memory from a trip with her now-deceased husband. Or having a strange late night run-in with child chess god, Bobby Fisher.

To quote one of Smith's most popular tunes, "Take me now, baby, here as I am/ Pull me close, try and understand/ Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe/ Love is a banquet on which we feed." While the journey isn't always pleasant, Smith's gift for lyrical storytelling prepares a sumptuous meal that, while bitter at turns, is sweetly satisfying.

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