the five biggest surprises from patti smith’s ‘m train’

How does the godmother of punk spend Christmas? What Slurpee slanging convenience store chain does she frequent? What’s her favorite TV show? Smith’s new memoir contains answers to our most bizarre burning questions.

by Emily Manning
Oct 8 2015, 2:50pm

Earlier this week, Patti Smith released the highly anticipated follow up to Just Kids, the love letter to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that bagged her the 2010 National Book Award. While Just Kids was a largely linear chronicle of her relationship with Robert, M Train is a fragmented collection of achingly beautiful dreams and digressions. Many of these vignettes revolve around Fred "Sonic" Smith, the guitarist for proto-punk outfit MC5 and Smith's husband of 15 years who died suddenly at 45. Other stories are a window into the frequent stops made on Smith's "mind train," from coffee to Christmas and all the mysteries in between. We've rounded up the biggest surprises from Smith's long, strange trip.

She's a coffee fanatic: Twin Peaks director David Lynch frequently entertains interview questions about his coffee consumption, and based on Smith's new work, that's a club she'll probably be joining. Much of M Train is set in Cafe 'Ino, the now defunct Greenwich Village spot where Smith often spent her days scribbling notes -- but her self-described "substance of choice" transports the work to other worlds. She travelled to Mexico City at the encouragement of William S. Burroughs to track down the best brew. But the biggest coffee-related surprise was Smith's stint in Michigan, where, bereft of actual cafes, she used to frequent 7-Eleven. "On Saturday morning, I would rise early and walk a quarter mile to 7-Eleven and get a large black coffee and a glazed donut," she recalls.

She should have had her own TV show: If Coffee Talk a) wasn't a sounding board for Jewish mothers' catty gossip, or b) was a real show rather than an SNL skit, Smith probably would have been a pretty good host. In fact, Coffee Talk actually sounds pretty close to Coffee Break, a 15-minute segment in Drunk in the Afternoon, the TV show she and Fred "Sonic" Smith dreamed up one day in 79. During her segment, Smith would invite viewers to join her for a cup of Nescafe (the sponsor she planned to court). "I went as far as to find and purchase the uniform for my segment," she writes, "a grey and white pin-striped linen dress that buttoned down the front."

She'll solve all the crimes: Although M Train was only published on Tuesday, Smith recently confirmed she's got a third memoir, a YA novel, and a detective story in the pipeline. That last one makes more sense than you probably think, because M Train is truly a window into Smith's obsession with detective shows and stories. The book contains an entire chapter on The Killing, a show Smith adored so much, she wrote a fan letter to its producer which led to a cameo as a neurosurgeon. She shouts out Law and Order, CSI Miami, and Cracker, a UK crime psychology show that originally aired between 93 and 95. Smith is such a fan of the rarely aired series, she deliberated extending her stay in London just to watch a 24 hour marathon.

She once sang Buddy Holly songs with chess legend Bobby Fischer. So get ready for this one: Smith is one of 27 members of the Continental Drift Club -- an obscure scientific society dedicated to explorer Alfred Wegener, the man behind the theory of plate tectonics. The Club once convened in Reykjavik, where Smith, also a chess enthusiast, arranged to photograph the table used in the historic match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. She was later invited to a "midnight meeting" with the legendary Fischer, although she was forbidden from bringing up chess at all. Instead, Fischer "issued a string of obscene and racially repellant references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants." After Smith stood up to the world chess champion's offensive musings, he asked her if she knew any Buddy Holly songs. "For the next few hours, we sat there singing songs… At one point, he attempted a chorus of Big Girls Don't Cry in falsetto," she recounts.

You could share some popcorn with her on Christmas: Last year, Smith spent her Christmas shredding at The Vatican at the invitation of the prog-rocking Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. But a few years before that, she actually had a pretty chill Christmas -- she saw Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. "Just me and a score of slackers, comfortably isolated from the world, attaining our own brand of holiday well-being, no gifts, no Christ child, no tinsel or mistletoe," her dispatches from a Chelsea movie theater read, "only a complete sense of freedom." 


Text Emily Manning
Photography via Flickr user Blondinrikard Fröberg

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