Patti Smith answered the phone in a bit of an absentminded way, but after a few seconds said, “Oh sorry, I was just kinda in another world, Ok, hello! I’m here now.” And in that somewhat trans-mundane, yet very real way, the cultural icon began to discuss her memoir Year of the Monkey.
“I would say it moves around like a river moving through fact, fiction, dream and waking,” said Smith. “This book was like one long improvisation and it just sort of unfolded, I guess aided by dreams and imagination.”
The way that Smith answered the phone harkens to her book because of its—the book’s—ruminative movement between fantasy, reverie, reflections and everyday stuff. Year of the Monkey falls between memoir and magical realism. Smith, who will speak to Boiseans as part of The Cabin’s Readings & Conversations series on Friday, Oct. 9, weaves in fantastical characters, vivid descriptions of food, musings on the death of her friends, and multiple epilogues that contain her thoughts on the current state of the world.
“When the paperback came out I felt I wanted to make it different. I changed the cover and wrote extra material,” said Smith. “I wanted people to have something special. The first epilogue begins with hopes for the New Year.”
A singer/songwriter, author, bad-ass punk-rock musician and poet, Smith has been around and has something to say. Her numerous accolades include being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, named by the French Ministry of Culture a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, winning the National Book Award for her previous memoir Just Kids, received the Polar Music Prize and is on Rolling Stones list of the top 100 artists of all time.
The book opens with Smith entering the Dream Motel or, as she finds out a little later, The Dream Inn. She had just finished a New Years show at the Fillmore in San Francisco and planned to meet her longtime friend music producer/songwriter and poet Sandy Pearlman to take a trip together. They never met because Pearlman suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.
Left with open plans and vivid dreams, Smith decides to undertake the trip by herself, and the memoir meanders through the West coast in the first half, eventually ending across the US on the East coast. She meets different characters during her travels, Ernest, a character that shares her love of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano, who Smith said she really enjoyed writing and will probably make an appearance in another upcoming book. She also gets a ride from Cammy, a woman who drives all over delivering pickled stuff and a couple that doesn’t allow talking in the car. Throughout the book she also gives in-depth descriptions of her surroundings and thoughts—paying special attention to food.
“The first part of the book, where I’m roaming around and preoccupied, eating is a part of that,” said Smith. “I enjoy reading those kinds of descriptions, and I used to read a lot of Moroccan literature, and cafés and food often weave into those stories.”
Everything in the book is a composite, even the characters. The memoir, although interspersed with poignant reflection, is also a lot of Smith wandering around, observing and reacting, blown like a tumbleweed, pushed around by the environment.
“I am sort of a human tumbleweed,” Smith said, adding that she had no idea how the book would end, and is more interested in analyzing if a sentence is good than putting the whole thing together in her mind. It’s an organic experience.
“I was sad because when I ended the book, I knew it was the end and I didn’t want it to end,” Smith said. “I just decided as it unfolded. I followed it along and the end just made sense.”
The memoir both begins and ends around the same time, “like bookends,” said Smith. Both of her dear friends Pearlman and actor, playwrite, screenwriter, author and director Sam Shepard pass away and Smith said a lot of the things in the book are like a double homage to these two men.
Shepard and Smith had a long friendship, and he plays a large part in her book, through her memories of their times, the descriptions of their work together and some of the ideas behind the dream segments. Due to the debilitating nature of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Shepard lost his physicality; but Smith said he told her sometimes in his dreams he could still do all the things he could before and that his dreams seemed more real than the present.
—Which is exactly how the memoir operates, exploring what is real and what is a dream, and in the end perhaps everything rolls together to create something bigger.
“Sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s fun, like a good memory, and some of it navigates loneliness,” said Smith. “I don’t write to be cathartic. I just wrote.”
The result is a book that’s highly relatable but also full of something that feels magic. There’s a part about picking up pennies in the memoir, something so many people do, that’s just one instance of Smith putting the real and the magical together. She said as a child she used to toss extra pennies and hope someone would pick them up, but she never picked up a penny she saw.
“Now, what’s funny is as an adult I always pick them up and somehow they always disappear out of my pockets,” Smith said. “It’s from that childhood rhyme and maybe it feels like a bit of magic and that’s important.”
Maybe, especially now more than ever, people need a little bit of that magic feeling, and Smith said she’s been shifting her expectations. Speaking to how the pandemic has changed her plans and expectations along with the rest of the world, she said she has had a challenging time but looks for joy in different ways every day.
“So like today, I did all of my laundry and that feels good, and I try to let myself be happy about small things and see what happens,” said Smith. “It says in the book I still think something wonderful will happen but maybe every day something wonderful happens. It’s wonderful to be alive even in the worst of times, and I think of that and build slowly.”