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Patti Smith's 'Year of the Monkey': Is She Evolving? Are We?

Year of the Monkey makes clear that the Godmother of Punk still delivers every time. But what have we done to Patti Smith with our worship?

Year of the Monkey
Patti Smith

Knopf

September 2019

Other

When Patti Smith shuffles off her mortal coil, all her obituaries will begin with, "Patti Smith, the godmother of punk…" because that's what she is. Of course, nobody knew that in the mid-'70s. You went to a Patti Smith Group show because the word was out that she was shaking stuff up. All the stuff—man stuff, rock music stuff, corporate stuff, poetry stuff. She was shaking it all up.

The label of punk itself was not proliferating until nearer the end of the decade, and even then, nobody said that Smith was the godmother of it. "Godmother" is the type of widely agreed-upon designation you get after very long hindsight. Indeed, her groundbreaking Horses album is over 40 years old now.

How has she spent those four decades? Smith raised a family, mourned a husband, and made nine more albums. Not one of those albums was even remotely poised to breach the top ten charts in her home country. Not that she would care about that as a measure of success. This poses a sizable philosophical question on which every art-making person must speculate: What happens when my side hustle hits it big before my main hustle? Because in the case of Patti Smith, the public seems to constantly forget: Patti Smith is a writer first. The music was never her main thing, but it took off in a big way. Smith is always willing to see where a new road might lead.

Meanwhile, she is the author of 25 books. She was four books deep already by the time Horses came out. She still found time to publish three more books in the late 1970s while heavily touring her band in the service of album promotion. Most of her early works were poetry collections and she even edited an anthology of poems by William Blake. Her career has been a serious study of language, with interest in melodic refrains, surreal images, and reverent tones. These explorations don't need musical accompaniment, although she has often used instruments to light the way to her words. Like her albums, these books never charted either—until 2010.

Singing Birds by Dieter_G (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

When Just Kids was published, it won a heap of awards. How odd it must be to keep on trucking with your poetry, in song and in print, decade after decade, only to eventually find yourself pinned by one stab at comparatively straightforward non-fiction. Just Kids is primarily about two things: Robert Mapplethorpe, and Smith's rise of fame as a musician. Is its content the cause of its success? Or should we say that Smith finally began to receive the recognition as a writer that she had long deserved? M Train, which was billed as a sort of sequel to the time period Smith discussed in Just Kids, was well liked but not at all slathered with the piles of praise that Just Kids was. For my money, M Train was far superior.

Since then, she's kept to smallish books like Devotion and New Jerusalem that were launched with little or no promotional fanfare. They get reviewed, but the fervor dies down quickly. And what does Patti Smith care if the corporate publicity machines don't grease any wheels in her name? She has no shortage of loyal readers and listeners. Those who still want to find her can do so with ease. She doesn't seem to need the money. She's got a punk mentality about it all; she'd rather just keep her head down and write some more—which brings us to Year of the Monkey.

On the one hand, it would be easy to judge that this book strongly resembles everything else she's written. It's a memoir covering the year of 2016: Smith was heading into her 70th birthday in a county heading toward electing Trump. Year of the Monkey covers Smith's traveling to a variety of places, where she stayed and what she ate. She also writes about some of the key people in her life at that time. The most notable aspect of the content may be in the second half, where she reflects at length on her connection to Sam Shepard. They had a brief romance in the early '70s but continued to have a strong bond based on their work until his death right around her 70th birthday. Like the majority of Smith's best writing, Year of the Monkey is most at ease when it is close to death.

Formally, this book also fits neatly into most boxes Smith has already built. The chapters are relatively short. They include language riffs more commonly found in poetry. These riffs blur the distinction between fiction and nonfiction through images that are romantic, surreal, and hazily half-described -- then left hanging. Her syntax fluctuates between the new age bluntness of a New Yorker and an ancient, flowery, long breath of modernism. Metaphors and keywords repeat, threading the text with a sense of déjà vu and hefty doses of mysticism or even symbolism.

Year of the Monkey is partial to tropes from Alice In Wonderland, and it includes a recurring image of empty candy wrappers with misspellings on them. There is a selection of her black and white photographs to complement the text. A lot of what happens in the book might seem fictional, if not for the photographic proof of some elements in the tale.

On the other hand, shouldn't we ask in what ways, if any, Smith is evolving as a writer? The consistency of her work is by and large commendable. Nobody thinks she's phoning it in. Year of the Monkey is as genuine a collection of Smith's life force as each of her preceding books. It is satisfying to catchup with her each time, seeing what new things she's thinking about in her same beautiful way.

Smith's awareness of herself as a character in her books is quite remarkable and she negotiates her own image with a lot of skill. Yet as I was reading, a feeling began to creep up on me that provoked me to a thought experiment. I tried reading the book as if it were written by someone else -- anyone else. In a vacuum, absent a reader's prior knowledge of the author, what kind of book is Year of the Monkey?

It's a good book. One that I'd recommend on the strength of all its predictable stylistic attributes and the incredible chance to look in on Sam Shepard at death's door. Reading it blind, with no consideration for its author, it began to feel like Denis Johnson's Train Dreams (2002) or Jesus' Son (1999). Absolutely true in the sense of eternal truths, mildly true in the sense that it actually happened, and wildly ornamented by a sense of poetry. So if we could fast forward three decades to consider the 40th birthday of Just Kids, what will we be saying about Patti Smith? Is that "godmother of punk" label an umbrella large enough to house all her books and albums?

Somehow, I don't think so. How could Patti Smith reinvent herself? She sometimes leaves us clues. Smith might like to crank out a half-dozen best-selling noir detective novels with strong, globetrotting female protagonists who drink too much black coffee and have a very close relationship with death. Or she could leave that writing to somebody else and simply star as the detective in the results of that writing on whatever new television show.

Would we allow Smith to become an actor? Would we allow Smith a third act at all? In some ways, the "godmother of punk" has not been allowed space for a proper second act, even though her publications have been piling up in defense of this second act for at least a decade.

But Smith probably doesn't care, because that's punk for you. She does what she wants, and if people like it, good for them. Right? I'd like to see her do another punk thing, which is to kind of spit in all our adoring faces. I'm looking for an updated version of that moment in 1975, long before our hindsight kicked in, when Melody Maker called Horses "precisely what is wrong with rock and roll right now."

I want to meet the 70-year-old version of that kid who screamed out a terrifyingly electric cover of The Who's "My Generation"; the 70-year-old kid who might shake up all the stuff yet again. I don't know what it would look like for Smith to tear down her image as "godmother of punk", but I'd be curious to see it happen. For now, we have Year of the Monkey, a stunning, soothing work from the author you know so well.

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