On the Road with Patti Smith

‘Year Of The Monkey,’ a Hallucinatory Memoir of a Rockstar Poet’s 69th Year

“You don’t read books like this, you absorb them,” a mysterious character tells Patti Smith, in Year of the Monkey. He’s referring to Pascal’s Arithmetical Triangle, but he might as well be referring to Smith’s hallucinatory memoir of her 69thyear. Woe to the reader who strives for literal sense while reading this book.

It begins on the first morning of 2016, at the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz. Patti has just played a gig at the Fillmore, celebrated her birthday, and visited Sandy, a lifelong friend who has suffered a brain aneurysm and lies unconscious in the hospital. She wanders outside the motel and takes a Polaroid of its googie sign and says to it, “Thanks, Dream Motel.”

“It’s the Dream Inn!” the sign corrects her; and with that we’re officially down the rabbit hole. The sign continues to speak to her throughout the book, setting her straight, nudging her forward.

The book is full of signs. Smith possesses a mystic’s soul and she puzzles over the semiotics of objects and events as she encounters them, trying to divine their meaning. She discovers a flurry of pristine candy wrappers on the beach and struggles to decipher what they might portend. She hunts in vain for bonfires, she misreads fortune cookies, she attaches sheets of paper to the wall and tries to diagram her inner life. More than anything, she wants to slow down time and understand what life and growing older means–is it linear or circular? But she is too smart to presume there is an answer; “Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.”

Anyone who has read any of Patti Smith’s previous works will be familiar with her peripatetic doings, and her romantic writer’s voice, which gains depth and momentum with every book she writes. A lifelong wanderer and philosopher, this book beautifully describes this mile of her road; at 69, it’s necessarily a road rutted by aging and death.

Patti wafts up and down the California coast, bumming rides from strangers and visiting her favorite coffee shops. Then she slides east to New York and the Jersey shore for more odd encounters with people both real and imagined. The fact that she is a celebrity plays no part in this story, other than the gigs that peg her to the calendar. But nobody ever recognizes her or asks for an autograph—she passes like a shadow, which makes it all feel even more fantastical and otherworldly.

Patti may not be able to stop time, but she has figured out how to sustain her unfettered youth well into her crone years. While the rest of us have aged into sensible shoes, rolling suitcases, and elastic waistbands, she still lives like an art student, wandering around with her camera around her neck and a notebook stuffed in the back pocket of her jeans. She reads Rimbaud, hitchhikes, and drinks black coffee after six p.m. She forgets her charger at the Dream Inn and lets her phone brick in her leather jacket. Material things don’t hinder her.

She’s the last of the fully-functioning, self-sustaining Bohemians, and it’s both comforting and a bit flabbergasting to those of us who ponied up our freedom for security years ago.

Here, for example, is Patti’s packing list as she gets on a plane: “…a rain jacket, flannel shirt, some socks and a small but profusely illustrated book on the Ghent Altarpiece.” No inflatable neck pillow for her. She’s the last of the fully-functioning, self-sustaining Bohemians, and it’s both comforting and a bit flabbergasting to those of us who ponied up our freedom for security years ago.

The only palpable grounding to be found in this odd inkblot of a year is in the illness and eventual death of her two dear friends, Sandy, the man in an aneurysm-induced coma in San Francisco, and Sam Shepard, her lifelong friend and former lover who was wasting away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Patti travels to Kentucky and then later Santa Ana to help Shepard edit his final book. These visits lend a warm, solid comfort to her book. These two are fellow travelers in every sense. “Everybody dies, he had said, looking down at the hands that were slowly losing their strength, though I never saw this coming. But I’m alright with it. I’ve lived my life the way I wanted.”

2016 was a tough year for many of us, and Smith, like the rest of Blue America, felt the dark storm gathering. She makes a couple of glancing political references to the election and the Trump inauguration, without dwelling too long on politics. Even though she’s a world traveler, she clearly shares our patriotic angst. “First Muhammad Ali died, then Sandy and Castro and Princess Leia and her mother. … The Year of the Monkey. The death of the last white rhinoceros. The ravaging of Puerto Rico. The massacre of schoolchildren.” Again and again, Smith asks, is this all a dream?

Smith sparsely illustrates Year Of The Monkey with the Polaroids she took during her monkey year. They’re stark, grainy, mostly with scant compositional interest: a cup, a pair of shoes, a man’s suit. But they all connect to and illustrate the dreamy narrative, serving as visual proof of at least some kind of reality.

Patti Smith has been many things in her life: poet, rocker, painter, performer, photographer. Her genius is in her ability to use whatever tool or medium she needs to parse and present her soul’s cry and her gift has always been to do it without a trace of solipsism. She has never shied away from big, universal themes of love, loss, and death, and though she is very serious, she is never dour. “This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1975 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking something wonderful is about to happen.”

It’s been our privilege and pleasure to watch Smith grow up and grow old. As time sweeps her into her autumnal years, she still burns as brightly as ever.

(Knopf, September 24, 2019)

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Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel is the author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom, and the memoir The Big Hurt. She has written reviews and features for The Los Angeles Times, The LA Weekly, Salon, Tin House, Leafly.com and others.

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