Reflecting on a fateful 2016, her seventieth year on the planet, punk-rock godmother and writer Patti Smith heads into the mystic.
Patti Smith’s new memoir, an account of her 70th year, starts on New Year’s Day 2016 somewhere near San Francisco. A week later, she would play her debut album, Horses, in a theatre in Los Angeles, where I was among an audience very happy to hear how she had announced herself to the world in 1975, song by song. She was terrific.
Smith doesn’t mention the show or any of the 70 or so others she played in 2016 in the book, apart from one memorial performance. It seems she had a lot of other stuff going on. And it’s not that kind of book.
It’s also a reminder of the divide between the New York punk-rock godmother who can still command the stage and Smith the poet-writer who in recent years has been much given to contemplations of her existence as an artist and her legacy. Year of the Monkey isn’t much like her previous memoirs, either. Just Kids, from 2010, was an evocative account of her early life and relationship with photographer-provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe, and 2015’s M Train was a blurred chronicle remembering her life since Horses and the deaths of her nearest and dearest, including Mapplethorpe.
Year of the Monkey is less a new chapter in that story than a melancholy, drifting account of what turns out to be something of an annus horribilis, marked by bereavements and concluding with Donald Trump’s election.
So, it’s no tour diary, but it does some travelling. That’s mostly across the US, but with a pilgrimage to the Fernando Pessoa house in Lisbon. Among her snaps, which decorate the chapters, the book includes photographic evidence of her visit to Portugal. Otherwise it might be tempting to read it as one of the dreams that Smith’s narrative veers off into, reveries fuelled by memories and random scraps of art and literary history, with Renaissance painting, operas and Australia’s Uluru as subjects.
The dives into her restless kaleidoscopic intellect can impress with the depths of the rabbit holes it leads us down, but it can also leave some chapters in perplexing culs-de-sac. Or in a kind of groundhog day in which Smith starts out in search of coffee and winds up in a discussion with “Ernest”, a recurring and presumably imaginary figure who is the other member of Smith’s twilight-zone book club.
There are times those dream excursions can make you wish she’d wake up and get on with it, especially as the best parts of the book are grounded in reality. Like Just Kids, they have her reflecting on two other men instrumental in her early life – Sandy Pearlman and Sam Shepard.
The book begins with Smith’s vigil at the San Francisco bedside of a comatose Pearlman, after a stroke that would lead to his death in mid-2016. Later, she recounts playing a memorial show for the music critic turned producer and manager who had suggested Smith should front a rock’n’roll band. “But I just laughed and told him I already had a good job working in a bookstore.” Shepard, with whom she was having an affair at the time, thought it not a bad idea.
An ailing Shepard, who died in 2017 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, also features. Smith stays with him on his Kentucky farm, where it’s hard not to hear her song Horses when she recounts how this cowboy writer can no longer ride. She’s there to help with his final novel, The One Inside. Her poignant picture of this dispels the heavy fog of Smith-mysticism that cloaks so much of the book.
YEAR OF THE MONKEY, by Patti Smith (Bloomsbury, $32.99)
Patti Smith and Her Band play the Christchurch Town Hall on April 25 and the Auckland Town Hall on April 27 & 28.
This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.