I am a sucker for nostalgia, and I can say with near certainty that there are few tales of a now-gone New York City that I’d ever turn down. This means I was bound to find Patti Smith eventually. All of that, paired with my love of poetry and music, led me on an inevitable path straight to her writing, and I am so glad it did.
From sparklingly honest and well-written memoirs to poetry-plus-rock that defined a genre, it almost feels like you’d have to try to not come into contact with her work. But once you do, you’ll find it hard to forget. One of my favorite descriptions of her comes from when she won the Polar Music Prize: “Rimbaud With Marshall Amps.” If a “guide to Patti Smith” is even possible, here’s yours.
Who is she?
So many things. To sum up all that she’s done: she’s a singer, a poet, an artist, and a writer. Her chic style and stories contain everything you’ve probably found yourself wishing you could be. She’s won the National Book Award for her beautiful, beautiful memoir Just Kids, she’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she’s quite honestly a staple of the ’70s New York City poetry, music, and art scene.
From the St. Mark’s Poetry Project to the Chelsea Hotel to CBGB (an infamous NYC venue), there’s a lot to read when it comes to Smith’s life and work, from two angles. The first is her poetry, and the second is her life, which she writes about in her two collections of non-fiction: Just Kids and M Train.
Just Kids. (Have I mentioned Just Kids?) I picked the book randomly out of a hip-height stack of books on a Lower East Side apartment floor, which made it feel even more magical for me, but no matter where you read it you’ll be transported to her world. It comes as a sort of ode to her life in New York City with soul-partner, roommate, and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. There’s so much to learn in it, from her life before the city to insight into who she is as a person, how her brain works, and how she fell perfectly into the often-not-glamorous life of ’70s New York City, scrounging for money just for a coffee. The most amazing part of Smith’s writing to me is how she captures such a sparkling and grimy part of the world in such a calm way. Her writing is truly lyrical and striking. Just Kids is definitely worth a read, before or after M Train, which came out 5 years later in 2015.
In fact, the day I finished Just Kids, I scrambled to a Soho bookstore to get a copy of M Train (I accidentally bought a signed copy without even realizing it – the magic of this city still exists!). This book is different, but the lyrical language and imaginative spirit are the same. Smith is, ultimately, a storyteller. Here, you’ll go on a bit of a more global journey – trips all over the world, stories about her life now, and tales of New York City as recent as an account of the destruction brought upon by Hurricane Sandy.
It’s constructed more like interconnected essay-stories that feel like episodes that pass through the windows of a subway car on the way to somewhere great – probably, for Smith, a cup of steaming coffee. The way her brain works is so captivating to read, and watching and hearing her pour her love for poets like Rimbaud is a treat. The book also features photographs, most taken by Smith herself, which adds another really personal and enticing layer to the artistry of it all – to see things as she’s seen them.
It’s interesting to consider whether to approach her poetry collections or her essays first. It’s sort of a question of whether you’d rather her poetry inform your reading of her life, or vice-versa, her life informing your reading of her poems. Either way, the cool part is being able to put the two into conversation with each other. She’s got books of poems from 2017’s Devotion to 1972’s Seventh Heaven, so get lost in it!
You can discover more about Patti Smith on her website, or by my preferred method of discovery: wandering around NYC with messy hair trying to feel exactly what she felt.