(click the image to go to the book’s Amazon page)
This is a lovely book, a meditation on creation and loss, a travelogue that takes us on pilgrimages around the world and through Patti Smith’s mind, and an oblique and moving portrait, in the shadows mostly, of Fred Sonic Smith, her mourned late husband.
I came to Smith sharing many of her enthusiasms. I read Burroughs and Ginsberg and Rimbaud in high school, and Sylvia Plath and Genet in college. I loved Jackson Pollock and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, too, before I encountered Smith, though perhaps not as much as Smith has. But I’m sure that’s the connection I made when I heard Horses for the first time, in a book/record store in San Francisco. It was so moving and the sense of this thing happening in New York back then so strong, that I immediately began plotting a way back east.
Which is to say, this book is written for me. It isn’t a music book, barely qualifies as autobiography in more than the sketchiest way. It has lots of funny details, many about cups of coffee, and floats many helpful ideas about connection and community and personal commitment to art, to people, to neighbors, that should resonate for any reader who wades in. But these thoughts come in a poetic, digressive way, the result of a series of trips she makes, not chronologically, to maintain her connections with her spirits around the world.
Fred Sonic Smith, Patti Smith tells us, was a baseball fan. He’d been scouted by his beloved Tigers as a shortstop. “He had a great arm,” she says, “but chose to use it as a guitarist, yet his love for the game never diminished.”
She and Fred bought a decrepit boat with the intent to fix it up, Fred loved boats, and they would sit on it listening to the Tigers games, she with a thermos of coffee, he with a six pack of Budweiser. If there was a rain delay, she notes, they would listen to Coltrane, but if the game were rained out they would switch to Beethoven. Huh?
Baseball writing is not Patti Smith’s forte and the sequence ends with her misspelling Denny McLain’s name, but all credit to her for trying.
There is a great scene in which, because she’s in Reykjavik, she arranges to photograph the chess table used during the 1972 Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky match. She then receives a call from Fischer’s bodyguard on Fischer’s behalf. He would like to meet at midnight. At first they spar, he insults her, she insults him back, but by they end they’re drunk and singing Buddy Holly songs together like old comrades. (I almost spelled Fischer’s name wrong.)
There’s a lovely scene I wanted to quote in whole, just because it gives such a good sense of this book’s charms, but apparently I didn’t dogear the page and I can’t find it. The scene is simple. The Smiths go on holiday, maybe to the Upper Peninsula, and stay in a cabin. In the cabin they find a record player, open the lid and there is a record on the turntable. It is the only record they have, so they spend their holiday playing a whole lotta Radar Love. Must have been the offseason.