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Interview:
Patti Smith rides through her life in poignant "M Train"
 

By GARY GRAFF
Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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Patti Smith is 68 now, a long way from the fiery punk rocker who declared that "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" and made some of the most ferocious and provocative rock of the punk era.

Time has tempered the rage, more than a bit. But not the artistic ambitions. As Smith herself notes, "I've reached Social Security age, but I'm far from retiring."

Need proof? During the past five years Smith published a memoir, 2010's "Just Kids," that won the National Book Award, put out an acclaimed album, 2012's "Banga" and launched a photography exhibition, "Patti Smith: Camera Solo," that showed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. And just last week released another memoir, "M Train," following "Just Kids" with a literary chronicle that peers outside of her frenetic music career to focus on broader musings and world travels -- many of them with her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, the MC5 guitarist with whom she lived in St. Clair Shores and raised two children, son Jackson, now 33, and daughter Jesse, 28.

And that's not to mention the book's revelation of her affection for TV police dramas.

Smith feels that the episodic, non-linear "M Train" is "in the vein of "Just Kids" but has a markedly different perspective than its predecessor, which focused on her relationship with the late photographer Robert Maplethorpe during the 70s in New York.

"('M Train') shifts more to family, Fred, the world around me," Smith explains. But like "Just Kids" it can't be considered a typical autobiography, instead tying together vignettes both dramatic and peaceful, buoyant at times and mournful in others as she grapples with Fred Smith's death in 1994, followed closely by her brother Todd's passing.

"You know, I don't have, like, a big rock 'n' roll lifestyle," explains Smith, who resided in the metro area from 1979-95 and largely put her music to the side, releasing just one album -- ?? -- during that period. "I don't have a big sex, drugs and rock' n' roll story to tell. I think I have maybe a better story. Through rock 'n' roll I traveled the world, worked with my late brother and, best of all, that's how I meet Fred.

"So it changed my life in many unexpected ways, and that's my tale to tell. It's not, 'And then we wrote this song and play this show and partied with so-and-so.' There was a real life that was separate and different from that, so that's what I want to write about."

Her time in Detroit, Smith says, "were the years I cherish," finding as much fulfillment out of the spotlight as she did in it. "As a human being and a mother and a wife, those were the most beautiful years I spent with Fred and the kids growing up," Smith recalls. "We were never parted. We both went off the road completely. We were together all of the time, and I did everything. We didn't have any help. I did all the cooking and the cleaning and the sewing -- not very well," she adds with a laugh, "but I did everything. It was a really good time for me."

During that period, Smith adds, she also "learned to be a very disciplined writer" of both music and prose, which served her well even years later for "Just Kids" and "M Train." "I was not longer able to just sit up all night writing and sleep during the day. We had our children" Smith explains. "I had to make a very disciplined way of working to accommodate my husband and my children.

"So I learned to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and write...to eight o'clock. At first it was difficult, but then it became very addictive. I can honestly say I wouldn't have been able to write my book 'Just Kids' had I not developed that kind of discipline in those years."

Even more than two decades after Fred Smith's death, returning to Michigan is "difficult" for Smith.. "It's not bad," she says. "It's just pure pain...not a bad thing. It's always moving to be in downtown (Detroit), to see where Fred and I lived, the (Mariners) church where we were married. It resonates."

Smith plans to follow "M Train" with more books; she recently revealed plans to pen another memoir dealing more with her music career and her relationship with Fred. She's also continuing to work on a detective novel and a Young Adult book, and while she spent this year commemorating the 40th anniversary of her landmark debut album, "Horses," the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee never rules out the possibility of new music on the horizon.

"I like to work. I'm glad to have the opportunity to work," says Smith, adding that, "I'm a writer. Writing is my vocation, whether it's songs or stories or poems or...I just feel very strong, and I'm very proud of that fact and I think I'll be able to contribute for a good while. So I'm looking forward to it."

Patti Smith

Book reading, Q&A and signing.

7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 12.

Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor.

Tickets are $35 and $24.50 and include a copy of "M Train."

Call 734-668-8397 or visit michtheater.org.


Web Site: www.michtheater.org

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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