Amid death’s uncertainty, love and music linger

Patti Smith performs in Germany in March 1978. [Photo courtesy of Klaus Hiltscher]

In her autobiographical book of essays, “M Train” (Vintage Books, 2015), poet and musician Patti Smith writes powerfully of love, loss and the capriciousness of fate.

The chapters in which she describes losing her husband, fellow musician Fred “Sonic” Smith, and reflects on their unconventional and precious life together brought me to depths of grief usually reserved for the loss of my own loved ones.

In life, he tries to trap her gaze, she writes, holding her walleye with his pale blue ones. In death, she searches for his face and encounters him in places near and far.

In a redemptive yet heartbreaking passage near the end of the book, he rescues her from a mountaintop in a dream.

As I put down the book one evening, these words stayed with me.

“I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony. Our daughter, Jesse, standing before me stretching out her arms.

— Oh, Mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.

We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

I kept turning these words over in my mind the next day, amid the busy yet mundane intervals of daily life – getting my son ready for school, driving to work, meeting with a client. In the car on the way home I grew tired of the radio music I usually play, preferring to remain silent with my own thoughts. But as I turned off the dial I heard a song playing at the same volume, clear as a bell, in my head.

I knew the lyrics intimately, but could not place it right away. It had been a long time since I had last played it, but it is in that category of songs that no longer need to be played, as they have been fully internalized.

Singing inside my head, the familiar gravelly voice I was hearing articulated the aching sorrow I felt in sympathy with Smith and the universal pain of loss her words so perfectly captured.

“I thought of you as my mountaintop/I thought of you as my peak.
I thought of you as everything/I’ve had but couldn’t keep.”

Lou Reed. I knew it before the chorus: “Linger on, your pale blue eyes.”

Later in the book, after describing the loss of her husband, brother and her various pilgrimages to the gravesites of writers and poets, Smith writes of losing Lou Reed.

Standing on Rockaway beach, she learns of his death in a phone call, and returning to the city finds “every other establishment” playing Velvet Underground songs.

Lou Reed songs.

“I stopped abruptly at my door, suddenly realizing that I would never see him again,” she writes. “That is death. A disappearing act.”

When I was in my early 20s, I lost a friend to cancer. I lay on the floor, sobbing, listening to the soaring requiem of Lou Reed’s 1992 album, “Magic and Loss” as his family laid him to rest in a winter-cold graveyard on the other side of the world.

Many years later I visited his grave for the first time. His was the older headstone in a group of newer family graves, and as I looked down I could see it was covered with faint swirls of lichen.

“Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line,” Patti Smith writes.

But love, memory and music linger on.