Patti Smith, M Train and Radar Love

(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.



4 thoughts on “Patti Smith, M Train and Radar Love

  1. Two things:

    1) Must use this Sonic Smith mention to express a permanent bitch about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Cheap Trick and no MC5 (or, as always, T.Rex)? And I LIKE Cheap Trick, for heaven’s sake. Who the hell’s in charge of that mess?

    Even worse, I don’t even hear folks complain that T.Rex or MC5 aren’t included.

    2) “Radar Love” was certainly one of AM radio’s coolest songs in 1973. I think everyone on earth had that album except me. Remember, it started with the white naked lady fan dancer cover and then switched to the big ear with the big earring? Always seemed to me to be one of those albums with one great song and the rest was kind of cruddy. That’s why I never bought it.

  2. I hear complaints about T.Rex, but the whole idea of complaining about Halls of Fame rubs me wrong. If you don’t like it, start your own. We shouldn’t expect much from the friends of Rolling Stone.

    My first thought about Golden Earring is that they were the first rock band I was a aware of that played rock in English and wasn’t from the US or UK. I’m sure I’m overlooking someone huge, but when I went to look it up I came across this sweet tidbit:

    They were originally called the Tornadoes, when they were started 15 year olds, but when they discovered another band already had Tornadoes they changed their name to Golden Earrings, named after a song by a UK band called the Hunters, with whom they toured. Here’s that tune:

    The music changed a lot in those 12 years.

  3. Not the Tornadoes who did “Telstar?”

    I like this, and I love “Radar Love,” and T-Rex with no argument about them or the Trick. That said, it is stupid to argue HOF voting anywhere. So subjective and without basic guidelines to me.

    As it was, I saw Patti at the Fillmore last Tuesday on the “Horses” 40th anniversary tour.

    There was one surprise with Michael Stipe and his little trio opening (unannounced) I guess like they did in NYC with a five song set.

    And, I saw Patti two years ago when she was just getting back into touring and she and the band were so much more relaxed and tighter this time through.

    They did the entire “Horses” album, then did “Dancing Backwards,” People Got the Power” (w/Stipe singing back-up) and “Because the Night” before Patti left and the band did a very hot tribute to the Velvets, playing “Rock and Roll,” “Waiting for my Man,” and then “Heorion.”

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