In a new postscript for M Train, Patti Smith’s wonderful 2015 memoir, the author, musician, and unabashed fangirl describes how she ended up making a cameo on a 2014 episode of The Killing. Turns out when you’re Patti Smith, all it takes is a well-timed letter to the creator to land yourself a role on your favorite show.
In the postscript, excerpted on The New Yorker‘s website, Smith is interrupted while reading in a café. She turns back to her book, a collection of stories by the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, in which a writer is interrupted by a fan who wants to meet him. Her musing on “the absurdity of interruption” gives way to thoughts of death; thoughts of death lead to the lamentation of another kind of absurd interruption — the abrupt cancellation of a favorite TV series.
As Flavorwire’s former editor in chief, Judy Berman, wrote when M Train was published, Smith “is a great artist, but she might be a greater fan of art.” The book is a guided tour through Smith’s art-addled mind. We follow her as she makes her daily pilgrimage from her West Village apartment to the nearby Café Ino, where she drinks coffee, eats bread dipped in olive oil, reads and writes. We accompany her to Frida Khalo’s house in Mexico City, where she falls ill and convalesces in Diego Rivera’s bed; to Japan, where she reads and thinks and eats; to Berlin, where she attends a conference for an obscure environmental organization (and reads and thinks and eats); to Rockaway Beach, where she impulsively purchases a derelict shack just before Hurricane Sandy hits.
Throughout M Train, which publisher Vintage is releasing in paperback this week, Smith’s physical journeys prompt musings that both dredge up the past and reflect on the present. Memories of her years in Detroit, raising her first child with her now-deceased husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, blend with musings on Osamu Dazai, Roberto Bolaño, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
In M Train, Smith’s inner monologue is so enmeshed with films, books, TV shows, and exhibits, it’s as if she’s living a double life — one in the real world, trudging through the snow to Café Ino, shuttling back and forth between the Rockaways and Manhattan, checking into hotels; and one in the life of her mind, where the ghosts of dead artists mingle with the ghost of Fred Smith, and where the world of a film or novel is just as real as the world around her. Smith understands that we imbue art with meaning through our affection for it. Whether it’s a piece of literature or a cheesy crime series like CSI:Miami, it’s not the art object itself that touches us so deeply, but what the object dredges up in our minds.
Smith really unleashes her inner fangirl on The Killing, devoting a whole chapter to it and the crime series she regularly devours. (She flew to London and spent several days there holed up in a boutique hotel room watching detective shows; this is my kind of woman.) In fact, the revered punk icon and poet feels a kinship with TV detectives: “Yesterday’s poets are today’s detectives,” she writes in M Train. “They spend a life sniffing out the hundredth line, wrapping up a case and limping exhausted into the sunset.”
Nestled among Smith’s reflections on Serious Artists like Bolaño and Pasolini, the cancellation of The Killing may seem like a non-sequitur. But it fits in nicely with M Train‘s preoccupation with mortality — the idea of art as a talisman against death. “It used to be that I’d write for a couple of hours in Café Ino, later straighten my room, fill my thermos, and get ready for a new episode of The Killing,” Smith writes in the new postscript. “Only now, café gone, show cancelled mid-plot, I am left with the residue of the unresolved.”
The only constant is change, the saying goes, but if a TV show is successful, we can count on it to be a constant presence in our lives for a few precious years (or, if you’re Seinfeld , possibly forever). Smith grabs hold of the soothing regularity of television, and on impulse, she writes to The Killing creator Veena Sud to express her “gratitude for bringing us her vision of Linden and Holder.” Sud writes back, and eventually, when the show is resurrected for six more episodes, invites Smith to visit the Vancouver set and offers her a cameo as “Dr. Ann Morrison, neurosurgeon.”
“They entertain and sustain me,” Smith writes in M Train of the fictional detectives she watches on TV. “I walk with them, adopt their ways, suffer their failures, and consider their movements long after an episode ends, whether in real time or rerun.” Smith’s appearance on The Killing goes one step beyond this metaphysical kinship, allowing her to literally step into the show. She confesses she could only address the actors by their characters’ names: “Thus my imagination was not tainted with reality.”
As she approaches 70, Smith is using her fame not to garner invitations to fancy restaurants or celebrity parties but to art itself. Whether curling up in Diego Rivera’s bed or popping in on Linden and Holder in The Killing, Smith burrows deep into the world she holds most dear, the world of art.