I fell in love with Patti Smith’s music when I was nineteen. Her most widely known song, “Because the Night” from her 1978 album Easter, was on the airwaves on repeat then. But that wasn’t it. I lived in a sort of flophouse with a couple of other girls and some guys who were in a rock band. We’d all gather in the garage every night for rehearsals. I’d kick things off by stepping up to the live microphone and shouting Smith’s spoken word lyrics from “Babelogue” into it: “I haven’t fucked much with the past / But I’ve fucked plenty with the future,” I’d begin. Poetry. After, my empowered little self retired to the sidelines to get drunk and watch while the boys played Judas Priest, Rainbow, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Let me tell you something: Patti Smith never retired to the sidelines. But forty-plus years later, Smith is seventy-five years old, and her 2019 memoir Year of the Monkey is all about fucking with the past. “Once I was seven,” she writes, “soon I will be seventy.”
Year of the Monkey is a long dream sequence of a book—reflections on aging and a life lived, with its many friendships and loves and its few regrets—punctuated with moments in the waking world. And all written in Smith’s particular voice. Smith sets the tone early on during a conversation with a road sign: “I could not help feeling like Alice interrogated by the hookah-smoking caterpillar.” We are about to go on a journey down the rabbit hole. The memoir seems part travelogue—Smith is by nature a wanderer. “I could feel the gravitational pull of home, which when I’m home too long becomes the gravitational pull of somewhere else,” she writes. Smith always makes me feel seen.
But at its core, Year of the Monkey is a poetic contemplation about Smith’s life and relationships—Smith is always a poet first. This book is best read aloud like the poem that it is, “pictures of gone afternoons.” There is always poetry in Smith’s prose. Even the mundane is lyrical in her grip—a packing list becomes a poem.
In 1976, Lester Bangs wrote a review of Smith’s first album, Horses, for Creem: “She just saw that it was time for literature to shake it and music to carry both some literacy and some grease that ain’t jive.” Yes. She paid her dues with this first album, Bangs observed, “leaving music fit for the reaches of her poetry ….” The tone of Year of the Monkey makes it clear Smith never left that poetry behind, no, not ever. It is filled with geographical wanderings and Smith’s musings—a mind she lets wander too—and the haunting interaction of text and images, Smith’s own photographs. No artistic stone is left unturned, and the book is so deftly layered, one could spend years trying to unravel it.
A strong thread of grief runs through the narrative too—so many of the people Smith loved are lost to her now. Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s friend and soulmate, has been gone for thirty years. Smith’s husband has been gone for twenty years, and her “sense of time seems to be accelerating.” As the book opens, it is Smith’s sixty-ninth birthday, and her friend Sandy is in a coma. She met Sandy at her first poetry performance in 1971. He is the person who told her she should front a rock band. He’s been her friend that long. But Smith has a dread of hospitals and rationalizes not going to see him, says it’s not necessary for her to be with him. She contemplates the future: “It’s going to be different,” she writes. “Things change ….” She knows this, and I’ve heard her speak about it many times with eloquence and clarity and wisdom. In theory. But she’s human, and in this memoir, she grapples with it like we all do.
Halfway through the memoir, Smith goes to visit playwright and actor Sam Shepard, her longtime and perhaps closest friend and a long-ago boyfriend. They are so close that, she writes, “years back we often dreamed the same dream, and … he seems, even now, to know what I’m thinking.” She imagines they will travel to Ayers Rock together, but Shepard is suffering from ALS, something he doesn’t want the public to know. “I still harbored the hope that I would not be destined to grow old without him.” And Smith is growing old, but one of the dichotomies of growing old is that, while our outsides age, our insides still feel the same our entire lives long. Internally, I am the same person I was at nineteen, although somewhat wiser. Smith feels this too. Her memories of her early days with Shepard are still vivid. She remembers “hanging on Sam’s arm as we tripped down Greenwich Village streets.”
And then, without warning, Smith drops a black-and-white photograph into the text. The image is startling in its simplicity—two rustic chairs, raw and weathered wood, empty, captioned “Adirondack chairs. Kentucky” on an otherwise blank page. On the next page, she writes:
Last Thanksgiving, Sam had picked me up at the airport in his truck, with some effort, using his elbows to guide the steering wheel. He did the things he could, and when he couldn’t he adjusted. At that time, he was editing The One Inside. We’d wake early, work for several hours, then take a break, sitting outside on his Adirondack chairs mostly talking literature. Nabokov and Tabucchi and Bruno Schulz. I slept on the leather couch. The sound of his breathing machine had a soft, enveloping hum. Once he had prepared his bed, pulled up his cover and folded his hands, I knew it was time to sleep and something within me acquiesced.
—Everybody dies, he had said, looking down at the hands that were slowly losing their strength, though I never saw this coming. But I’m alright with it. I’ve lived my life the way I wanted.
Suddenly the photograph of the two Adirondack chairs is infused with new meaning and takes on new light. A sad and haunting feeling difficult to express, but one that we all recognize. Smith uses her photography in this way throughout the book to evoke emotion and to say things mere words cannot say quite as well.
One of the fascinations I have always had with Smith is that she is a woman and an artist who, like Shepard, has lived her life the way she wanted. She has lived a life of truth and integrity, doing the things she loves—a life of art, which is not so easy or so common, especially for a woman, because it means being confident and tenacious and perhaps a little selfish, surrounded by people who believe you are worth the trouble. All things okay for a man to be and to have, but not always so for a woman. Unless that woman is Patti Smith. She saw what she wanted, and she reached out for it with both hands, and then she turned around and she generously gave it back to us.
With all its reflective dreaminess, it would be easy to see Year of the Monkey as a sort of swan song, except for the fact that Smith is nowhere near finished singing. She kicks off a tour in New York next month which will then continue in Europe. She’s contemplating the past, yes, trying to make sense of it, as we do when we grow older and as we do when we endure years of particular loss. After the two years we’ve all just had, we certainly get it. But Smith hasn’t taken a seat on the sidelines. She puts the past into perspective as best she can, and then she carries on, as we all must. She lives as intently in the future as she always has, and if anything, Year of the Monkey left me with a sad and cautious hope. Lester Bangs perhaps said it best in that 1976 review of Horses, although he is gone now too and could not have known then the enduring legacy Patti Smith was building: “Patti’s heroes may be gone, but she is both with us and for us,” he wrote. Still true. And that, to me, is such comfort.