At the December 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony, Patti Smith stepped before the king and queen of Sweden, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and a host of tuxedoed and gowned dignitaries and began to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan, that year’s laureate for literature. As Smith later wrote in a piece for The New Yorker, “I had it in my mind to sing the song exactly as it was written and as well as I was capable of doing. I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.” And then, two minutes into her performance, catastrophe: Smith forgot the lyrics.
She appeared to, anyway. “I was simply unable to draw them out,” she wrote. Visibly nervous, and with her voice carrying every wounded note of Dylan’s song, Smith faltered, asked the conductor if she could begin again, and apologised with a crushing, worried smile. The sympathetic audience applauded, and Smith returned to the song.
That extraordinary moment is noticeably absent from Smith’s new memoir, Year of the Monkey, but it’s illustrative of how masterfully the writer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer can rescue beauty from disaster. Beginning on New Year’s Day 2016 and ending a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration the following January, Year of the Monkey is a moving account of the emotional stumbles, physical and intellectual wanderings and deep losses Smith experienced in her 70th year. “
“There was a sense of everyone gone, a JG Ballard kind of gone,” Smith writes of a seaside dream she has while staying in a Santa Cruz, California, motel called the Dream Inn. Smith harbours this dream and its grey mood throughout the year to come, as old friends fall ill and slip away and the nation faces “the hyperreality of a polarising pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost”. She is haunted by an “insidious insomnia”, the martial ticking of the clock and the spectre of climate change.
Under the weight of it all, Smith indulges a desire to part with reality. She imagines herself receiving personal messages from the Dream Inn’s sign and holding conversations with a mysterious figure named Ernest, who keeps appearing out of nowhere. “You’re not a hologram, are you?” Smith asks him, though she’s only half interested in the answer.
A pioneer of punk rock, Smith does not rage against her approaching 70th birthday, nor does she turn away from it. “The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual,” she writes. “I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating.”
Nevertheless, she remains Patti Smith, the same rules-shattering poet who opened her 1975 debut album with the declaration, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, and the same National Book Award-winning writer whose 2010 memoir Just Kidstraces her path to becoming a counterculture icon alongside photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She is, as she writes in the new book, “still going about my business, that of being alive, the best I [can]”.
As readers of Just Kids, M Train, Devotionand Smith’s other books have learned, that business involves drinking many cups of coffee, watching hours of TV from hotel-room beds, writing in cafes, taking photos with a Polaroid camera and reading tons of books. Smith finds art everywhere, and each of her books offers a welcome look at what has captured her attention. In Year of the Monkey, it’s the dystopian television series Mr Robot, the music of Pavement, HGTV’s Extreme Homes and Roberto Bolano’s unfinished novel 2666, among so much else.
For Smith, these works provide as much refuge as escape during Year of the Monkey. Two important men in her life, record producer-music critic Sandy Pearlman and writer-actor Sam Shepard, are dying, Pearlman from the effects of a cerebral haemorrhage, Shepard from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Pearlman is unresponsive during his last months in the hospital, but Smith spends as much time as she can with Shepard at his home in Kentucky, where she helps him to edit his final work of fiction, The One Inside.
As with most everything else, Smith accepts what has happened to her friends. “I did not ask the fate of Sandy. Or Sam,” she writes. “Those things are forbidden, as entreating the angels with prayer. I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.”