Review: Year Of The Monkey By Patti Smith
At the start of 2016, Patti Smith’s friend the producer, manager and rock critic Sandy Pearlman was hospitalised after suffering a brain haemorrhage. She first met him in 1971 when he attended one of her performances during which she read poetry against a backdrop of feedback, courtesy of guitarist Lenny Kaye. Pearlman approached Smith after the show and suggested she front a rock band, but, as she recalls in her new memoir: “I just laughed and told him I had a good job working in a bookstore.” Later she took his advice and went on to make the landmark punk album Horses. Their friendship endured, leading her and Kaye to his bedside nearly 50 years later as he lay in a coma. “We stood on either side of him, promising to mentally hold on to him, keep an open channel, ready to intercept and accept any signal,” Smith writes. But the signal never came; six months later, Pearlman died.
Her account of 2016 shows it was a difficult year all round. Along with the loss of friends, she is poleaxed by the rise of populism, the dirtiness of the US election battle and looming environmental catastrophe. She is also discomforted by her impending 70th birthday. And so, after a run of New Year gigs at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and a stretch back in her leaky New York flat, Smith engages in what she calls “passive wandering, a small respite from the clamouring, the cries of the world”. She travels to Arizona, California, Virginia and Kentucky.
In the latter, she visits her friend and former partner, the playwright Sam Shepard, who is almost bedbound and nearing the end of his life. Shepard’s final book The One Inside is close to completion but, as the act of writing becomes increasingly difficult, he calls on Smith to be his amanuensis. Elsewhere, she goes to Lisbon, where she visits the poet Fernando Pessoa’s house, and looks through his personal library, and to her bungalow in New York’s Rockaway Beach where she clears out the dust, sits on the porch and gazes at the insects and the flowers.
Typically for Smith, portents and symbols lurk in unexpected places, and everyday objects become freighted with meaning. Photographing them with her trusty Polaroid camera, she basks in the memories evoked by her father’s cup, a motel sign, a suit worn by the artist Joseph Beuys and a book of poems by Allen Ginsberg. She imagines her old chum Ginsberg fearlessly grappling with the current political turmoil. He “would have jumped right in, using his voice in its full capacity, encouraging all to be vigilant, to mobilise, to vote, and if need be, dragged into a paddy wagon, peacefully disobedient”.
Year of the Monkey is often maudlin, a reflection both on mortality and of the times in which Smith finds herself, but rich in detail. She reads endlessly, strikes up conversations with strangers, takes walks in the middle of the night and drinks gallons of coffee. At one stage she lists the contents of her suitcase – “six Electric Lady T-shirts, six pair of underwear, six of bee socks, two notebooks, herbal cough remedies, my camera, the last packs of slightly expired Polaroid film and one book” – which reveals much about her day-to-day needs. She cadges lifts from oddball types, among them the couple who forbid her to talk while they are driving and abandon her at a gas station when it becomes clear she can’t stay silent, and the garrulous Cammy, who has a car boot full of pickling jars. Smith also dreams vividly, leading to seemingly normal scenes suddenly bending out of shape as you realise she has slipped into unconsciousness. Indeed, the narrative moves constantly between reverie and memory; it’s invariably left up to us to work out which is which.
Both mundane and magical, this book is a world away from Just Kids, Smith’s award-winning 2010 account of her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, though the unique artistry of her prose remains. There are greater similarities to M Train, Smith’s previous memoir which found her staying in hotels or shuffling around her apartment, watching Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders reruns on TV. Here she once again cuts a solitary figure prone to forgetfulness, who falls asleep in her coat a lot, and holds conversations with inanimate objects. The ghosts of those she has lost – her mother, her husband, her brother – remain close.
Smith lives much of her life in the past but her account of her wanderings shows us who she is now, and the stories and dreams that occupy her. She is not without optimism – “Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards” – but exists with a keen awareness that there is no overcoming the passing of time or the limits of the imagination. As she notes in the epilogue, “the trouble with dreaming is that we eventually wake up”.
Patti Smith's Year of the Monkey is a beautiful, elegant, and poetic memoir that takes a single year in the artist's life, 2016, and delves deep into the events that shaped it — and the feelings and memories they produced.
Effortlessly weaving together fiction and nonfiction, Smith takes readers on two unique journeys: one that can be traced on a map and one, infinitely richer and more complex, that takes place inside her head and heart. The result is a hybrid narrative that's part travel journal, part reflexive essay on our times, and part meditation on existence at the edge of a new decade of life.
After a series of New Year's concerts at the Fillmore, one of San Francisco's most renowned music venues, musician, writer and photographer Patti Smith decides to spend a year traveling by herself, contemplating life, and connecting with old friends. The journey takes her from a strange hotel in California that talks to her to a long, dreamlike walk in the Arizona desert — and from a farm in Kentucky to the side of the hospital bed of a beloved mentor and friend who unceremoniously collapsed in a parking lot. Along the way, memories abound, strange events happen, and Smith ponders everything around and inside her as she approaches her 70th birthday. The process is a deep conversation with art, politics, a variety of places and books, and some of the people who have influenced her.
Patti Smith’s “Year of the Monkey” is a book of dreaming. Not individual dreams so much as the condition itself. “I just sighed,” she confides late in this deft and enigmatic narrative. “Was it all a dream? Was everything a dream?” She is referring equally to the story she is telling and the insubstantiality of life.
“Year of the Monkey” may come billed as a memoir, but really it is less in the vein of Smith’s National Book Award-winning “Just Kids” than of her poetry, or impressionistic works such as “M Train” and “Woolgathering.” There, the author traces a line between the routines of existence and what she has called “the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.” That muse emerges via the “silk of souls” she has assembled of the friends and family she has lost.
For anyone familiar with her career, those souls will be familiar: the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd, her late husband Fred. The last two appear in “Year of the Monkey,” as well as an array of cultural heroes, including Roberto Bolaño and Jerry Garcia. Along with two dying friends — producer Sandy Pearlman, whose cerebral hemorrhage serves as a precipitating incident, and Smith’s beloved Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor whose deterioration from ALS leads to the book’s denouement — they ground “Year of the Monkey,” reminding us that despair and possibility often spring from the same source.
“Here’s what I know,” Smith intones. “Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. … Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen.” This may seem a contradiction, but that’s the point: that life can’t help but confound us, that what centers us, paradoxically, is our unknowing, that the line is always blurred between present and past.
For Smith, this blurriness sits right on the surface; brilliantly, she weaves it into her narrative. “Marcus Aurelius,” she writes. “I opened his ‘Meditations’: Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. … This made terrible sense to me, climbing the chronological ladder, approaching my seventieth year. Get a grip, I told myself, just revel in the last seasons of being sixty-nine, the sacred Jimi Hendrix number, with his answer to such a caution: I’m going to live my life the way I want to.”
Were she less assured in her telling, the passage might appear forced, off-putting, those other voices keeping us at arm’s length. In “Year of the Monkey,” though, the opposite happens: The distance is collapsed. Smith is showing us her inner life, the interplay she shares with that silk of souls. It is as if everything she has heard or read, everything she has been, continues to co-exist inside her. We recognize this to be accurate because something similar is true of us.
Smith makes the connection explicit in the way she activates her dreaming as a narrative device. “Our dreams are a second life,” she writes, quoting the French romantic Gérard de Nerval. In “Year of the Monkey,” this plays out in a series of repeating riffs or figures: a mysterious man named Ernest, whom Smith encounters first in California and later in Virginia Beach; a fascination with Ayers Rock, in Uluru, Australia, “the dream capital of the world,” where aboriginals have walked existence into being out of the dreamtime since the beginning of the world.
Then, there are the photographs she weaves throughout the text, less as illustrations than another form of blurriness. Smith calls them “amulets,” but I think of them more as portals, trap doors to a world beyond the page. Late in the book, she recalls sitting “in the center of my own disorder,” surrounded by boxes of Polaroids. Eventually, she discovers a folder containing several shots we have already encountered: “Sam’s Stetson hat. My own boots. Two linden trees in the mist. Two Adirondack chairs. One after another, each a talisman on a necklace of continuous travels.”
As with Ernest or Ayers Rock, the effect — enhanced further by a photo of these images strewn, or repeated, across a table top — is of a kind of doubling, echoing Smith’s writing: the experience as lived, and then recorded, and after that, recorded again. It is as if, with each picture, she is summoning this scene, this moment, giving it the weight of a reckoning.
The real reckoning “Year of the Monkey” makes, however, is with mortality — or, perhaps more accurately, with time. Taking as its frame the Chinese Year of the Monkey, the book begins in January 2016 and ends after the inauguration of Donald Trump. That’s a different sort of reckoning, and it has its place here, although Smith is careful not to let it overwhelm. Or maybe it’s just that she sees it as one more reason to hold onto what matters, for as long, and as fully, as she can.
This means Pearlman, fading in Marin County, and most essentially, Shepard, cared for by his sister in Kentucky, surrounded by the horses he can no longer ride. “We’ve become a Beckett play,” Shepard jokingly tells Smith, leading her to imagine them “rooted in our place at the kitchen table, each of us dwelling in a barrel with a tin lid, we wake up and poke out our heads and sit before our coffee and peanut-butter toast waiting until the sun rises, plotting as if we are alone, not alone together but each alone, not disturbing the aura of the other’s aloneness.”
That’s a kind of dream too, an image in which love is enough to sustain us, and loss, if not revocable, can, for a moment anyway, be redeemed. A fantasy? Yes, a dream of life, as Smith once sang. “[S]hards of love, Patti, shards of love,” she recalls Pearlman insisting, and the recollection gives him voice again. At the same time, Smith is too smart for such easy consolations; she has been through too much. Or, as she writes, thinking of Shepard in his Kentucky kitchen, “[T]he trouble with dreaming is that we eventually wake up.”
PATTI SMITH is a writer, performer, and visual artist. She gained recognition in the 1970s for her revolutionary merging of poetry and rock. She has released twelve albums, including Horses, which has been hailed as one of the top one hundred albums of all time by Rolling Stone.
Smith had her first exhibit of drawings at the Gotham Book Mart in 1973 and has been represented by the Robert Miller Gallery since 1978. Her books include Just Kids, winner of the National Book Award in 2010, Wītt, Babel, Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, and Auguries of Innocence.
In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor given to an artist by the French Republic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Smith married the musician Fred Sonic Smith in Detroit in 1980. They had a son, Jackson, and a daughter, Jesse. Smith resides in New York City.
Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith