“My Patti Smith WOW moment “ – Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

In my head, I think I thought (in as much as I thought) that Just Kids was Patti Smith’s first book – and that M Train was her second and that Year of the Monkey was her third – but it turns out she’s been writing for years. This is her tenth book. I was obviously aware of Patti Smith – as a singer covering Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Because the Night’ in the first instance, many many moons ago, but then because of Horses, obviously, and then her duets with singers I liked (Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe) – but only peripherally, I wouldn’t have called myself a fan, and I wouldn’t previously have sought her books out. I was aware – again, in my sort of cultural peripheral vision – of the repute in which she is held, of her position as a sort of grizzly, witchified, shaman-poet, of her marriage to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith – but it’s genuinely not until now, not until I’m in the position of having read Year of the Monkey, that I’ve had my Patti Smith WOW moment. Year of the Monkey is my Patti Smith WOW moment.

Now, some of the – shall we say – exuberance with which I’ve greeted Year of the Monkey may be down to our current cultural moment. We find ourselves (don’t we?) surrounded by lunatics. People who are clearly out of their gourds with rage, being stoked left right and centre by the malevolent power wielders busy pouring money into bold new ways to incite division and hatred (as I write this people are getting excised about the jewellery worn by someone on Britain’s Got Talent, before that it was a politically charged performance by Diversity, the other week it was Last Night of the Proms or whatever, on and on the list goes) – and so anyone, quite literally anyone, who has sense and isn’t mental or stupid I take to my bosom as if they are a rock in the middle of a violently churning sea. Every day conversation has become a hazardous minefield in which I tiptoe afraid to suddenly find myself face to face with someone who believes the Coronavirus is a hoax, that the moon landings didn’t happen, that the world is flat – and I’m afraid to say that the minefield I pass through has seen bloodshed and lost limbs. These people are everywhere.

And so, as I say, to hear anyone speak ill of Trump, to hear anyone worry about the state of political discourse, to hear anyone express fear for the future in a genuine, unsentimental way – it makes them one of my own. Patti Smith is one of my own.

“I was still moving within an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges, the hyperreality of a polarizing pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost.”

This is a memoir, which begins at the tail end of 2015 (ah 2015, do you remember 2015?), runs like a travel diary through 2016 and ends up at the beginning of 2017. It’s the year Trump came to power but it’s also the year that Patti lost one of her great friends, Sandy Pearlman, and one of her great loves, Sam Shepard. She travels, nomad-like, from place to place. She breakfasts, she drinks coffee, she reads books. Smith is a great fan of Roberto Bolano (and 2666 casts an almighty shadow here – to the extent that I was left with a rather haunting desire to read it again – or again and again as Patti apparently has). She talks to people in cafes and bars. She bumps into friends. She hitches a lift here and covers the gas. She wakes up and nails blankets to her wall. And, as she approaches her seventieth year, she worries about her own mortality and the state of the nation and the state of the world as we hasten our own demise.

“Things are changing at a speed we never dreamed. We’ll be talking nuclear war. Pesticides will be a food group. No songbirds, no wildflowers. Nothing but collapsing hives and lines of the rich getting ready to board a ship for a night on the moon.”

She thinks of Thomas Paine (“These are the times that try men’s souls”) and she despairs at “the insufferable yellow-haired confidence man [who] has been sworn in, with a Bible no less”. Which may make you think, Jesus, I don’t need anyone – not even Patti Smith – pointing out to me that the world is going to hell in a handcart (it’s clear as day, right, just take a look out of the window) – but that would overlook the earnest joy she takes in being alive:

“…soldiers laying down their arms and sailors leaving their posts and thieves the scenes of their own crimes and all at once we’re in the epicentre of one grand musical. No power, no race, no religion, no apologies. And with this vast spectacle racing through my mind, some part of me leapt up and sashayed down the road, entering the scene, joining the chorus increasing ad infinitum, like William Blake’s angels streaming from the turning pages of the book of life.”

So yes there is “the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart”, but there is also Marcus Aurelius (who “asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes”) and mornings in cafes in Lisbon and “intermission(s) of small and tender consequence” and an almost devout belief (albeit in the Year of the Monkey) that “anything is possible”.

It may be, in the dog days of 2020 where I write this, that people still play that game where they imagine their ideal dinner guests. I play a new game. When the flood waters are out of control, as I stand upon my rooftop with my nose in the air trying to get one last gasp of air down before the entire world goes down the shitter, who would I like to occupy the craft that comes by in the last desperate moments to save me? I’d like Patti Smith please, dressed in a bright yellow sou’wester (and maybe Willem Dafoe, but only if he’s made to talk like the character from The Lighthouse all the time). Such is the nature of Year of the Monkey. It inspires you with hope, with a feeling, finally, that possibly there are people out there who can save us.

Any Cop?: All the incentive you’ll need to go and read all of the other books she’s written.

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