Her last memoir, Just Kids, from 2010, chronicled her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe before he became known as one of the best and most provocative photographers of the 20th century and before she became, well, a rock goddess. Just Kids won a National Book Award. It spent 42 weeks on the best-seller lists. Smith spent years crafting it, after promising Mapplethorpe, who was then dying of AIDS, that she'd write about him.
M Train is a very different project, impressionistic and digressive.
"It's like a mental train, a train of thought," Smith says over coffee at New York's Whynot Coffee. "It's a mystery train. I just hopped on the train and see where I went every day."
Sometimes her mental train took her into a meditation about a sublime cafe or a perfect cup of coffee. Or remembrances of her pilgrimages to the homes and graves of famous writers. Or how she joined an obscure society of philosophers and scientists called the Continental Drift Club. Or the time she ended up singing rock songs all night with chess prodigy Bobby Fisher.
"I wrote whatever came to mind," she says. "It had no outline. I just wanted to keep writing and writing and writing. No editing, and just go on and on and on."
What might sound like an editor's nightmare was a dream come true to Kevin Bourke, who copy edited M Train.
"Patti Smith's been important to me since her first albums," he said. "Even the liner notes just introduced me to so much I hadn't experienced before, like [Jean] Genet or [Arthur] Rimbaud."
For Bourke, one of the pleasures of copyediting M Train was learning about more of Smith's enthusiasms. Which, on any given page, might include German romanticists, the Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, detective shows or Pat Sajak. Still, Bourke admits to initial intimidation when it came to fact-checking Patti Smith.
"That's a voice I've been hearing for 40 years," he says. "In the beginning, it was a little bit difficult because I was ... staring at her and not paying attention to what she was saying. But she changes the atmosphere of a room when she comes in. She's got a really sweet energy about her, so I was nervous — until she showed up."
Smith said one of her goals with this memoir was to write about her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, who played guitar in the influential early punk band MC5. He died in 1994 of heart failure. Patti Smith followed him to Detroit soon after meeting him in 1976. Then, she more or less dropped out of the music scene for years. In M Train, she writes about mending Fred Smith's clothes and adopting his interests — such as the Detroit Tigers, and boating. It seems far removed from the subversive spirit she conveyed as a musician.
"Well, I do have that sense of giving the male his due," Smith says mildly. "You look at the lioness. She is really — I was really the one that held the reins in the household. But he was our king, you know? That's like lions. The king sits there being king; he has this beautiful mane and watches over everybody. But it's the mother, the lioness, who goes out and finds the food and drags it back and gives it to the kids. He was our king."
It's Patti Smith's loves and what she thinks about that fills M Train's pages. An entire chapter is devoted to the TV show The Killing. She adored it so much, she sent a fan letter to the show's producer and ended up on the Vancouver set for a cameo.
"The role I was born to play: a neurosurgeon, of course," she says, happily.
Smith thinks detective work is much like being a poet. It's a vocation that's observant and relentless. She was, in her words, "heartbroken" when The Killing was canceled. She writes movingly about growing old without the treasured company of several people she's loved most, in a world that can feel often frightening and terrible. But Patti Smith is a romantic, and an optimist.
"For everything bad, there's a million really exciting things," she says, "whether it's someone puts out a really great book, there's a new movie, there's a new detective, the sky is unbelievably golden or you have the best cup of coffee you ever had in your life."
A million things. And many of them are in Patti Smith's new book.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It has been 40 years since Patti Smith made her stamp on rock 'n' roll with her album "Horses."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")
PATTI SMITH: (Singing) I was at the stadium. There were 20,000 girls, called their name out to me.
GREENE: Some of you might remember the cover of this album. It is Patti Smith in black and white, slouched against a wall, wearing a buttoned-up shirt and suspenders. Robert Mapplethorpe took that photograph. In 2010, Patti Smith's book about their relationship, "Just Kids," spent 42 weeks on the best-seller list and won a National Book Award. Now Smith has a new book out, a poetic, free-flowing memoir. It is called "M Train."
SMITH: It's like a mental train, you know, a train of thought. It's a mystery train. I just hopped on the train and see where I went every day. I wrote it in a cafe every day.
GREENE: So NPR's Neda Ulaby met Patti Smith in a cafe in New York.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: We met at the Whynot cafe on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood filled with early 1970s memories.
SMITH: Robert Mapplethorpe and I used to come in this area to buy weird things that nobody would want, you know? Like rolls of burlap or potato bags.
ULABY: For his art projects.
SMITH: I would just want coffee. As long as I got a cup of black coffee, he could get the art supplies.
ULABY: It's impossible to overstate how strongly Smith feels about coffee. She likes it black and weak. Coffee is a recurring theme in her new memoir - her favorite cafes, her travels to Mexico to buy beans at the source and her long-standing ambition to be a coffee purveyor.
SMITH: I had a desire to open my own cafe since I started reading Paul Bowles' books.
ULABY: Bowles wrote about expatriate life in Morocco, where the cafes are as simple as the one Patti Smith can imagine owning.
SMITH: You know, white-plank, clean, glowing floors with some wooden tables, a place where people could write and think and daydream and maybe some pictures of Baudelaire or somebody hanging on the wall and just honest coffee. It wouldn't be a place to get frappuccinos and stuff like that.
ULABY: Smith's new book is digressive and impressionistic. It's a travel diary in some ways and a trip through her mind. She remembers pilgrimages to the far-off graves of famous writers or joining an obscure society of philosophers and scientists called The Continental Drift Club, or the time she sang rock songs late into the night with chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. It's nothing like her last memoir.
SMITH: This book is really a mystery to me. I wrote "Just Kids" because Robert asked me the day before he died to write it, took me years and years and years to craft that book and tried to do it in a manner, first of all, for Robert. But this book, I just began writing it. So I don't have any idea like why or for who except I writ it. So I hope people like it.
ULABY: Compared to her best-seller "Just Kids," "M Train" is much less structured.
SMITH: I wrote whatever came to mind. It had no outline. I just wanted to keep writing and writing and writing. No editing and just go on and on and on.
ULABY: What might sound like an editor's nightmare was a dream come true for Kevin Burke. He copyedited "M Train."
KEVIN BURKE: Patti Smith is somebody who has been important to me since her first albums. Then, like, the liner notes just introduced me to so much that I hadn't experienced before, particularly writers like Genet or Rimbaud.
ULABY: Burke said one of the pleasures of copyediting this book was learning about a new set of Patti Smith's enthusiasms - arcane German romanticists, a Japanese writer named Ryunosuke Akutagawa and detective shows. But Burke was intimidated about fact-checking Patti Smith.
BURKE: Because, you know, that's a voice that I've been hearing since - you know, for 40 years. So to have that person in front of me, in the beginning, it was a little bit difficult because I was just, like, kind of staring at her and not really paying attention to what she was saying. But she changes the atmosphere of a room when she comes in. She's got a really sweet energy about her. And so I was nervous until she showed up.
ULABY: One of Patti Smith's goals with this memoir was to write about her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith.
SMITH: 'Cause most people don't know him.
ULABY: Fred Smith played guitar in MC5, the influential early punk band.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBIN TYNER: Never, never, fire, fire, fire.
ULABY: Smith died in 1994 of heart failure. He'd been with Patti Smith since 1976. She followed him to Detroit and pretty much dropped out of the music scene for years. In her new book, she writes about mending his clothes and adopting his interests - the Detroit Tigers and boating, which seems removed from the subversive spirit she conveyed as a musician.
SMITH: Well, you know, I do have that - the sense of, like, giving the male his due, you know? I mean, you look at the lioness, she is really - you know, I was really the one that held the reigns in the household, but he was our king, you know? And that's like lions, you know? The king sort of sits there being king. You know, he has this beautiful mane, and he watches over everybody. But it's the mother, the lioness, who goes out and, you know, finds the food and drags it back and gives it to the kids. But he was our king.
ULABY: It's Patti Smith's loves and what she thinks about that fill "M Train's" pages. She devotes an entire chapter to the TV show "The Killing." She loves it so much, she sent a fan letter to the show's producer and ended up on set for a cameo.
SMITH: The role I was born to play - a neurosurgeon, of course.
ULABY: Treating a suspect with suspicious memory loss.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KILLING")
SMITH: (As character) It seems limited to the emotionally traumatic event - the shooting - the day of.
JOEL KINNAMAN: (As Stephen Holder) But he could be faking it, right?
SMITH: (As character) That's correct. But I really don't think he's faking.
ULABY: Smith thinks detective work is a lot like being a poet. It's a vocation that's observant and relentless. You have to soldier through hardship.
SMITH: Even in the pages of this book, I had some things that happened that were a little rough here and there. Well, I mean, they canceled "The Killing."
ULABY: Deaths of beloved TV shows aside, Smith writes movingly about losses - objects, places and growing old without some of the people she's loved most. She opens the memoir and reads a passage.
SMITH: (Reading) What I have lost and cannot find, I remember. What I cannot see, I attempt to call, working on a string of impulses bordering illumination. I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon.
ULABY: Patti Smith, romantic optimist, says sometimes this can feel like a terrible world. But for everything bad...
SMITH: There's a million really exciting things, you know, whether it's somebody puts out a really great book. There's a new movie. There's a new detective. The sky is unbelievably golden. You know, you have the best cup of coffee you've ever had in your life.
ULABY: A million things - and many of them are in Patti Smith's new book. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDONDO BEACH")
SMITH: (Singing) I was just standing with shock on my face. The hearse pulled away and the girl that had died, it was you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.