Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Mortality of Patti Smith

                                                     (Image used without permission.)

Since I can remember, probably back as far as my late teens, I have worshipped at the altar of Patti Smith.  The perfect storm of intoxicating poetry, fiery punk rock spirit, passionate humanism and so much more, in my world Patti is a musical goddess who has spawned many imitators, but there is not one who can hold a candle to her genius.

As well as her (and, not forgetting, her incendiary band's) music, I also love her books.  As soon as it was published in 2010 I bought and gobbled up the beautiful "Just Kids," a memoir focusing mainly on her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but also detailing her early days as a performer in New York City.  It truly is a terrific read, by a wonderful writer.

When I heard that the follow up, "M Train," was to be published last year I looked forward to getting my hands on it like no other book before or since.  I just completed reading it (and the earlier "Woolgathering"), and as Patti had indicated prior to publication, it is a very different affair to its predecessor.  "Just Kids" was apparently approached with definite aims in mind, to capture a time in Patti's life, whereas she wanted to be 'freer' to roam with "M Train."  It is therefore a denser, yet looser work, delightfully peppered with commentary on some of her obsessions: coffee, TV detective shows, the books of Haruki Murakami and Japanese culture.

As David Bowie did (albeit in the knowledge he was dying) in the lyrics of his epic "Blackstar" swansong, on the penultimate page Patti briefly turns her attention to mortality and aging, with a few lines that I find relatable and both calming and sobering at once:

I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose.  When we are young we think we won't, that we are different.  As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so.  And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology.  How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-coloured hair.

I've been thinking about the single inevitability facing us all a great deal lately.  That the lives of many friends and heroes have ended so suddenly or tragically in the last few months is bound to have had a profound effect on someone with my health history.  Approaching each routine health check I get nervous, wondering what unseen horrors might be lurking within me.  Renal cancer presents no symptoms until it is too late, and having had it I take nothing for granted concerning what might ultimately claim me.  While I'm not in the least scared of death per se, the unknown manner of it really does.  We can all only hope for a peaceful end, or one about which we know nothing.  Here one moment, gone the next.           

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