Few things remain intact from the heyday of 1970s rock and roll. Patti Smith is one of them. Not only is the revered rock-and-roll poet still around, but she is still writing, performing, traveling and even relatively active on Instagram. In addition to her musical career — Smith was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame in 2007 — Smith has written a number of books. Her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids,” won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Since then, Smith has been busy writing and performing for the better part of the last decade. Her latest book, “Year of the Monkey,” published late last month, loops us into the inherently confusing dreamscape of which Smith exists. Her new book proves navigating her world is worthwhile.
Smith is a true nomad and has been for decades. She seems to thrive on movement; it sustains her evident curiosity and vast cultural knowledge. In “Year of the Monkey,” Smith hitchhikes up and down California, making a casual agreement with a woman who seems to be transfixed by missing children and Amber Alerts that she hears of on the radio in which she splits the price of gas in exchange for a ride. This seems like a textbook Smith move. She is endlessly engaging with strangers and seems to possess the un-learnable ability to connect with people she meets on the street — or in this hitchhiking instance, at the gas station.
In another nomadic adventure in “Year of the Monkey,” Smith visits a friend in the Arizona desert; it is a surreal setting through and through. After Smith arrives at her friend's residence, he soon has to leave. Then, one morning, Smith goes for a walk on the barren landscape, and encounters one of the book’s most striking characters, a man named Ernest whom she met at a café in Southern California. “He rolled down the window of a beat blue Ford pickup, a chunk of old sky transfigured. He had a different shirt on, with all buttons intact, and in a way seemed like someone else, someone I once knew,” she writes.
This chance encounter, of which there are many in “Year of the Monkey,” can only be taken as some sort of dream. Much of Smith’s recent writing has been atmospheric ; her texts seem to occupy a lot of time on the outskirts of reality. But in “Year of the Monkey,” Smith delves fully into her dream worlds. Smith’s keen noting of Ernest’s shirt’s buttons are perhaps the most bizarre part of the dream, and also the most characteristic of the way Smith perceives her--often bizarre--interactions. Smith further details the car ride, saying that “There was a rosary wrapped around the rear-view mirror. It felt familiar driving with Ernest in the middle of the unexplained; dream or no dream, we had already criss-crossed some curious territory. I trusted his hands on the wheel. They evoked other hands, those of good men.”
The hanging rosary, the curious territory, the character of the man whose hands are on the wheel called into question--they work to place Smith precisely on the precipice of a concerning situation, a location she seems to be perfectly comfortable occupying. Though this desert hitchhiking dream may seem like an alarming situation, Smith states the calmness it brings her. Her unquenchable thirst for constant movement, even in dreams, will not be impeded by minor causes for alarm.
Dreamy scenes such as this dominate “Year of the Monkey.” It is difficult to place where and when Smith is describing throughout the book, and yet, that is made alright by the uniqueness of her thoughts and musings.
The post-career life of rockstars is often forgotten, pushed under the rug of their number one hits and most iconic performances. But Smith’s most recent writing brings us into a rare full circle. In “Just Kids,” Smith shared intimate details of her past, and in “Year of the Monkey,” Smith similarly shares with us the intimacy of her present.