To be read with: shots of tequila while you’re riffing a song with Janis Joplin at the bar of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, man.
Nothing can be as resolutely true about Patti Smith than she’s had an interesting life. I chose to do a double books-and-booze review for these two because I read them in close succession and also because together they cover the majority of her life, to date. Just Kids takes us to the Beat Generation of New York and Paris in the 1960’s; the Chelsea Hotel and the elite Andy Warhol crowd reigning supreme. Concentrating on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and her beginnings in the poetry scene, this book is about a girl trying to find herself in the midst of chaos. M Train was published in 2015 and takes place in Michigan amongst a few other places from the mid-2000’s until the point of publication. It is similar but also contrasting, now Patti is a woman, trying to find herself in the midst of silence, after her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith’s death.
I was prepared to love Just Kids, and I did. There is something enthralling about the sexual/moral/creative freedom of New York in the 1960’s. This idea probably comes from being able to romanticize the thoughts of being a starving artist without actually having to starve. This is also from the point of view of young, middle class white kids that have moved to the city to share in this experience. I think there would be some harsher truths if this was the story of someone dealing with the racial conflict that was rife in that time, or anyone that could have been potentially drafted into the Vietnam war. That being said, Patti Smith does relate the personal losses of the AIDS epidemic, of drug overdoses, and suicides that occurred within her moving group of wannabe world-changers.
Patti Smith name drops and references famous Beat Generation hang outs quite frequently and it is to wonderful effect. It gives technicolor to a time that none of us alive now could ever experience, and it gives the reader a foothold into the world through known parties. There are parts about sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, poetry, and art. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol make appearances. At times it is gritty, and at times it is glamorous, exactly what you would want in a memoir about the 1960’s and creative awakening. Patti Smith has an overarching positive view of most things, and is blatantly honest about herself and the experiences she’s been through. It’s refreshing and it’s easy to relate to.
M Train takes place roughly 20-25 years after Just Kids. She recounts the opportunities awarded to her having since become an international icon, successful poet and rockstar. The tone to the book is leaning toward the melancholy side, since it’s after the death of her husband Fred. She’s trying to find a way to write and create again, and in doing so she revisits periods of her life in anecdotal excerpts. I enjoyed the writing in this memoir as well, even though it is different. She is no longer the starving artist, and references getting a hotel room in London at a moment’s notice without any sense of entitlement or any indication that this is out of the ordinary. This book also concentrates on her travels and different international circles that she has become a part of, which is very cool. It’s almost as if a friend is catching up with you at a café after having not seen each other for a long time, which is fitting because that is where Patti Smith spends most of her time in this book.
This memoir is not the crazy, chaotic ride that Just Kids is, and that’s okay. They both stand on their own in terms of writing style and content. I would recommend both of these two books to anyone interested in art, poetry, rock n’roll or the whirlwind lifestyle of the Beat Generation/Counterculture Revolution. Patti Smith possesses a talent for relaying events and interactions with people without passing judgement, which I really liked.
*Disclaimer: although I enjoyed reading about New York in the 1960’s, my preferred era is still the Expat Era of Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.