Patricia Lee Smith is a 60-something semi-retired widow who lives in a brownstone in Lower Manhattan. Her children are grown and have their own lives, thank you very much. She has a few cats. She watches a lot of detective shows. She is something of a stickler for routine. She has put away enough money to live comfortably, so travels abroad occasionally—sometimes for work, sometimes just for discovery. Between trips, she likes to frequent a favorite neighborhood café, where she drinks a lot of black coffee, reads some, and scribbles anecdotes or lines of poetry in her journal.
And oh yeah, Ms. Smith was inducted into the French Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010.
Patti Smith's M Train is an amazing and highly rewarding read. It doesn't pack the same punch as her award-winning memoir Just Kids, but it is worthy on its own terms. Woven between and amid ramblings about finding a good cup of coffee and cleaning up cat vomit are stories that make you wonder whether Patti is making them up, or whether she actually dwells in the dimension of fiction. I always loved her first "comeback" album, Dream of Life, released in 1988; this book fuses life and dreams in ways I've never encountered outside of a novel.
Did Patti really meet Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, and did Bobby arrange the meeting just to sing with her? Did Patti really travel to Reykjavik and elsewhere to convene with a now-defunct group of scientists and artists called the Continental Drift Club? Did she actually collect stones from a prison colony in French Guiana and deliver them to Jean Genet's grave? Did the bungalow she had just bought in Far Rockaway really survive Superstorm Sandy?
My ladyfriend Kayleen bought me the hardback of M Train as an Epiphany present, or for the 12th day of Christmas if you prefer. That's fitting, considering that Patti Smith herself was an epiphany for me when I saw her perform with her band on NBC's Saturday Night in 1976. The previous summer, I had watched Lloyd Dobyns's Weekend report on the British punk scene, and there she was on American TV, the distilled essence of New York punkitude. Also, Patti has played around with Catholic imagery in her music and poetry, and while she does not identify as Catholic, it comes from a sincere place: She dedicated her 1979 album Wave to the very temporary Pope John Paul I.
Before we went on our train trip to the Northeast, I had mentioned casually that I would like a copy of M Train. However, when I saw that Patti was the cover story of Amtrak's monthly magazine, I held up the photo and said to Kayleen, "I need a copy of her latest book, please."
The entire SNL episode, with Jerry Ford's press secretary Ron Nessen hosting, is available on YouTube, but there's a $1.99 paywall (worth every penny!), so here's a video of a performance of "Gloria" from 1979.
Green politics connection: The only time I have seen Patti Smith in person was at the Austin stop of Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder tour in 2001. She sang a few songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and shared the bill with Hightower, Jackson Browne, Molly Ivins, and Ralph Nader, among others.
Trivial tidbit: The M Train of the title is not a route on the New York City subway system.
I've never been a huge fan of the memoir genre, but I have now read two of them back to back. The first full day that Kayleen and I spent in Connecticut, Boxing Day, involved a trip to the Book Barn in Niantic. As I have remarked before, I fantasize about living at the Book Barn, spending days reading it from one end to the other. When I visit, as I do every trip back east, my habit is to seek out and purchase the one book that calls to me. This time, the book that called was a first edition of Ingrid Betancourt's memoir from 2002, priced at $4.00.
In English-speaking countries, Ingrid's book is entitled Until Death Do Us Part, but the French and Spanish titles both translate to Rage in the Heart. At its publication in 2002, she was a popular, innovative crusader against the corruption that defines her native Colombia's politics. She is better known in the US as the legislator, presidential candidate, and founder of the Oxygen Party, who was kidnapped by FARC rebels shortly after publishing her memoir and held for six years. She has since written about her long captivity.
As with anyone who dares to challenge that endemic corruption, Betancourt received death threats to herself and her family, and was almost assassinated on the streets of Bogotá. For herself, her family, and her movement, it was better that she was captured by FARC than killed by sicarios, the barrio kids on motorbikes whom the drug cartels (and establishment politicians) hire for quick, cheap, assassinations.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Until Death Do Us Part. It's not compellingly written, not even written all that well as translated from the original French (yes, French, because Ingrid spent much of her childhood in France). Although there is evidence that she tried not to assemble a typical self-serving autobiography, emphasizing that her political life has been in service to her nation (as she believes it should be), she unflinchingly gives herself credit for her various accomplishments and provides excuses for her various faux pas. She at least takes pains to share credit with family, staff, allies, teammates, and even adversaries for making her accomplishments possible.
What the book does quite well is paint a vivid and grim picture of the political scene in Colombia up to 2002, and how that scene both affects and is affected by Colombia's relationship with the United States. The cartels can afford to buy majorities in the Legislature, whether Conservative or Liberal. They thrive because of US demand for illicit substances, and because Colombians do not take kindly to having the US dictate domestic policy. When drug lords are arrested, tried, and convicted, they continue to operate their empires from their cushy prison quarters. When Colombian cartels are put out of business, new cartels gain power in Mexico and Central America.
On the train ride back to New Orleans, when I was reading Until Death... in the lounge car, a fellow passenger noticed the book and raved about Even Silence Has an End, Ingrid's tale of her six-year captivity. I plan to score a copy of that and devour it soon.
Green politics connection: By the time of Ingrid's 2002 presidential campaign, the Oxygen Party added "Green" to its name, becoming El Partido Verde Oxigeno. It ceased to be a recognized political party in Colombia during Ingrid's captivity, but by 2007 it evolved into the Colombian Green Party (Partido Verde Colombiano).
Trivial tidbit: Ingrid Betancourt's Conservative diplomat father and Liberal beauty queen/activist mother counted author Gabriel García Márquez and painter Fernando Botero among their friends.
Blogging Sporadically since 2014
Here you will find political campaign-related entries, as well as some about my literature, Houston underground arts, peace & justice, urban cycling, soccer, alt-religion, and other topics.