Rock and Roll Book Club: Patti Smith's 'Year of the Monkey'

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Patti Smith's 'Year of the Monkey.'
Patti Smith's 'Year of the Monkey.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

2016 was a rough one. "First Muhammad Ali died," writes Patti Smith in her new memoir, "then Sandy and Castro and Princess Leia and her mother."

And Prince, and David Bowie. A divisive election tore the country apart. Sam Shepard was in his final days. Patti Smith turned 70. It was the Year of the Monkey.

That's the title of Smith's grief-inflected new memoir, which focuses specifically on that year. It's highly personal and idiosyncratic, but the legendary punk priestess wasn't alone in her feeling that year marked a kind of inflection point. We're now at the end of the decade, but 2016 marked the end of an era.

Particularly for fans of her iconic catalog, the arrival of any new Patti Smith book is a major event. Her 2010 National Book Award winner Just Kids is widely regarded as one of the greatest books ever written by a rock star, and several more rewarding titles include 2015's M Train.

That book extensively reflected on her relationship with the MC5's Fred "Sonic" Smith, her husband from 1980 until his death in 1994. Death also haunts Year of the Monkey, starting with the revelation, just before her 69th birthday celebration shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco, that her longtime friend Sandy Pearlman had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

Year of the Monkey, a slim volume at 171 pages, unfolds as a sort of walkabout: Smith wanders through the world, experiencing chance meetings and cherished reunions. There's a certain level of celebrity at which it becomes difficult to get around without being recognized, and Smith apparently isn't there: in one astonishing vignette, she hitches a ride to San Diego for $85 and a promise to remain absolutely silent. For a music fan, it's kind of hard to digest the information that there exist people in this country who will kick Patti Smith out of a car for complimenting their playlist.

Not everything in the book seems to have literally happened. Ernest, a man Smith randomly meets at an oceanside cafe, makes recurring appearances in surreal scenarios that Smith suggests might have mostly been dreams. "I'm just a Mexican who believes in truth," he says, and hands Smith a brown paper bag containing an English translation of Roberto Bolaño's The Part About the Critics, "obsessively notated in Spanish."

Yeah, you kind of have to go along for the ride on this one. Stick with it, though, and it will take you places like Sam Shepard's Kentucky home, where Smith works alongside her friend; he'd survive the Year of the Monkey, going to his final rest in the succeeding Year of the Rooster. If you have to Google which unspecified "Sam" is editing The One Inside, this is probably not the book for you to start your Patti Smith reading with.

The book also includes dozens of Smith's Polaroid pictures documenting her travels: a wise monkey at a San Francisco shrine, a blurry doorway in a Lisbon cafe, a Day of the Dead t-shirt. She haunts bookstores and record shops, walking out with finds like "a couple of back issues of Biblical Archaeology Review" and a secondhand DVD of The Pied Piper of Hamelin ("I couldn't believe my luck").

Although the entire book, in a sense, is a meditation on death and life, Smith isn't one for the kind of pithy aphorisms you see while you're waiting for your Goodreads feed to load. About the closest she comes is, "Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg."

This is a book for contemplative readers, and for fans who have journeyed with Smith from the frontiers of music to this latest stage in her uniquely introspective career. It's a modest and lyrical marking of a passage in time, a poignant travelogue flecked with texture and suffused with gentle hope.

"This is what I know," she writes in an epilogue. "Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow."

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Oct. 30: The Beautiful Ones by Prince

Nov. 6: Jack and the Ghost by Chan Poling, illustrated by Lucy Michell

Nov. 13: Wham!, George Michael and Me by Andrew Ridgeley

Nov. 20: Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren

...and mark your calendar for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads Reveal at Number 12 Cider from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13! The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads is presented with support from AARP Minnesota. Vote now and tell us what you think are the best music books of all time.

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