Station to Station: A Love Letter in Two Parts


Posted by in February's Magazine

The last days of Café ‘ino, March 2013 For Patti Smith dreams are where the M Train begins and where it ends. Indeed they appear to be a major factor in the way she lives her life – as Delmore Schwarz would have it, ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’. Springsteen’s early biographer Dave Marsh recognised this when he talked about the fables Smith spun to create the myth of Patti Smith the artist. He caught her perfectly in his seminal article for Rolling Stone magazine: ‘Her horses got wings, they can fly’. In the same piece Patti also, rather disarmingly, says “I was a little loose in the attic”

M Train the book starts at Café ‘ino in Greenwich Village NY, where Patti is (or was) a regular. With her regular seat, her regular supply of napkins to capture her thoughts and her regular order of black coffee, brown toast and olive oil. Her dedication to this particular seat is such that she even contemplates murder in the ‘English bourgeois detective style’ – an unlikely obsession of hers – towards the occupant of her seat for having the temerity to take her space in the first place.

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Some would suggest this behavior is a tad divaesque but I reckon it’s a reflection of her self-absorbed thought processes excluding everything except her thoughts and those who populate them. One of her throwaway remarks: ‘My penance for barely being present in the world, not the world between the pages of books, or the layered atmosphere of my own mind, but the world that is real to others’. Bespeaks more her deep introspection rather than any deep-rooted arrogance or indifference to others. William Burroughs always said she had a bit of the Shaman about her and this too is revealed in different ways.

In the early 1980s Smith makes an arduous pilgrimage to the old French holding prison at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in northwest French Guiana – a temporary stop on the gateway to hell that was the Devil’s Island archipelago – simply because that old provocateur Jean Genet had registered disappointment that it closed before he could be imprisoned there. She collected stones, particular stones to bring back to Genet. Which she duly does, placing them on his grave in a Christian cemetery in Morocco decades later, while attending a conference on the Beats. She has also been known to curate intermittent ‘celebrations’ of the life and work of Arthur Rimbaud (another major influence) on the anniversary of his birthday,

Each of the pensées in this seductive book reveal fragments of a life from childhood right through to the present day, all percolated through a West Village café. (Imbuing the ordinary with qualities unseen by others is a leitmotif that runs through the book.) Here you will discover her love of detective shows – at one point she detours to London to enjoy a marathon session of old crime series on ITV 3. Going all shy when she bumps into Robbie Coltrane in the hotel lobby after just watching a Cracker marathon being trailed on screen.

Dotted throughout M Train are Smith’s Polaroid photographs often (artfully?) blurred but always redolent – graveside with Genet, Plath, even the ‘father of the Japanese short story’ Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The cover shows her at that table in Cafe ‘ino on the eve of closure and it is this closure which shapes her nonconcrete thoughts into something more solid. A generous – at times funny – daydream of a book about a most singular woman. Just how singular is one of the big reveals and worth the reading.

Wembley Empire Pool, May 1976…
At that time, Wembley was the furthest I’d ever gone for a gig, and Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor documentary had only whetted our appetite for the final appearances – before the character’s dismantlement in Berlin – of The Thin White Duke.

The Dali/Bunuel film Un Chien Andalou was blazoned across the giant screen with Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity acting as an impromptu soundtrack when a steam train whistle sounded and the screen rose, revealing a stark stage lit only by bright white light with the band already onstage building and building on the riff from Station to Station until finally, after what seemed like a decade, David Bowie made his entrance. First looking and then sounding sensational, he proved a man at the vertiginous height of his powers.

Those powers stayed in place for the next few years. Then, excepting the odd moments of serene inspiration, there were twenty odd years of frustrating misfires until he returned sensationally to form on March 8th three years ago. The Next Day proving to be an architectural dig through his Berlin years put to music, which had us avid fans praying he might tread the boards again. Indeed, his work with Enda Walsh and Ivo van Hove on Lazarus, currently playing off Broadway, fuelled that hope. It was not to be. Lazarus got mixed reviews but so did Low at the time, with the NME brilliantly printing two reviews one for and one against, to be fair the latter was retracted.

Then, in swift succession, came the startling and strange Blackstar film followed by the Lazarus video and, glory of glories, a new album. Ominously, it now seems, on his birthday. I managed to shoehorn in a few listens before heading to the Bowie Birthday Bash at the Citrus Club – at which point Dame David was still with us – where I was able to assure (the very fine novelist) Gordon Legge that it was another return to form and thus worth investing in the vinyl version. Unusually for a tribute gig, men were in the minority and there was a healthy smattering of young folk. A new generation of Bowie fans, who have no first hand information about their potential new hero, can now plot a course that is infinitely wide simply because he made a career out of negotiating the narrows.

There is a line in Girl Loves Me that isn’t in the made up languages Nadsat and Polari, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Which is what I felt when I woke up to the news our man had gone. Even now (mid January) some of us are still absorbing it, I know of one Leither reader who can’t even bring himself to listen to side two of Blackstar without collapsing from within.

He left us a gift that continues to give. Who knew that Elvis had recorded a song called Blackstar? I’ve been checking out a fascinating site called the Villa of Ormen, which is the opening line of the final album. There is so much more to excavate from this one album alone, sent back to us from the abyss. A legacy then…
As David Bowie’s own art teacher was to him, so Bowie has been to us. The best music teacher our generation has ever known. Goodbye (and, forever, Hello) Mister Jones.

Patti Smith M Train, Bloomsbury, RRP £18.99

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