Patti Smith‘s birthday today. The continuing ravages of Covid-19 (and the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant) have necessitated her cancelling her scheduled live performance. She was due to perform tonight (something of an annual rite – this year it was to be at the Capitol Theatre, Port Chester).
but the disappointment was tempered, just a little perhaps, with the honoring of Patti this past Monday. In a ceremony at City Hall, Patti was presented with the keys to the city by Bill de Blasio, the outgoing Mayor of New York!
And I think this is.. you know, when we honor people, I particularly think about the pathfinders, the people who showed the way to so many others. There’s a lot of artists out there who realized what they could do and what they could say, because they heard the works of Patti Smith. She got together with Lenny Kaye, almost 50 years ago, and they created something amazing. And the Horses album in particular, 1975, considered one of the great and most important rock albums of the entire history of rock and roll. Many wonderful songs, and I love many of them, but Ghost Dance is one that I am, to this hour, moved by. The first time I heard it gripped me and every time I hear it again, it grips me. From – that was from her album in 1978. (Easter) Unbelievably powerful to me and among so many others.
Patti Smith: Thank you
Bill de Blasio: Feel free. Sit down talk to the people.
Patti Smith: Thank you, thank you so.. much. It’s.. It’s awesome. I was thinking this morning, when I learned of this honor. What have I done in New York City, what have I given New York City to earn this? But most of all I kept thinking of what New York City has given to me. I came here in 1967 from a real rural area of South Jersey. I had just a few dollars in my pocket, nowhere to stay, no real prospects, but I came here to get a job and to see what I could..what I was was made of. And I found that the city, with all of its diversities and possibilities, if you’re willing to work, if you maintain your enthusiasm, you’ll make it. And I got a job in a bookstore, I met so many wonderful friends. I evolved as an artist, met Robert Mapplethorpe and Lenny (Kaye) and Sam Shepard, and so many people who I evolved with. And I left New York City in 1979, I went to Detroit and married my husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and I had two children. When he sadly passed away in 1994 I returned again to New York City with my children. Again, it was hard times, it was very hard times, probably the hardest time in my life.Again with hard work and enthusiasm this city embraced me again, gave me another chance to rebuild my life and continue to evolve as an artist, So I wish I could give New York City the key to me! – because that’s how I feel about our city with all its challenges and difficulties it remains (and I am quite a traveller) the most diverse city to me in there world, the most.. the city that has so many possibilities, so much possibilities for growth but also, as we grow, and again evolve, as a city, I pray that we will also protect our city, its history, its historic streets and architecture, its community gardens, its trees, all of these things we need because they are part of our identity as New Yorkers – also the Empire State Building, new skyscrapers, progress, but also the small things, that is part of our great city, the small things, so lets all do our best to protect those small things and.. I just..er.. this is so encouraging because it’s been a difficult year for all of us, a difficult two years, but I always think of my parents and my grandparents, our ancestors have gone though world wars, their own pandemic, the Great Depression, and they always forged through. They came out of it… thy came out of it with hope. They brought us into the world and we can do it too. We are navigating heavy seas but we are all small or large captains.. but we.. we can do it, we can navigate our part of our little seas, our little area of difficulties. We can do it if we stay strong and grateful and remember our mothers and fathers and grandparents and what they had to do to bring us into the world and all of the strife that they had to surmount. We can do it too because that’s who we are, we’re resilient people, and who’s more resilient than a good old-fashioned New Yorker! So.. thank you.
Bill de Blasio: Beautiful, beautiful. Patti, I gotta ask you one thing – It was absolutely beautiful what you said – and I think there is, because its been so hard and a shock to everyone these last years, I sometimes confront people who don’t remember what you just said, sort of lose a little of that perspective and feel a little too hopeless, and I understand its hard (so when someone’s feeling hopeless, I feel empathy). But I want to remind them that….whatever our challenge there’s something we can do, and of course, the message “People Have The Power” What to say if someone is saying to you, “Ah, you know, things are so bad, there’s so much division, we can’t do anything about it”, what’s your way of encouraging people, what’s your message to people who are feeling hopeless?
Bill de Blasio: Amen
Patti Smith: …and just find something every day to be enthusiastic about, to be encouraged about, because that’s part of physical and emotional and mental healing, is allowing joy to eclipse fear and doubt. I know it’s.. It’s what my father always said. If you asked my father (and my father read The Bible, Socrates, all kinds of.. Jung, but when you would ask him, “But what’s the most important thing in life?”, and he would always say there same thing – “Be happy, because if you feel happy, it will spread, like your blood in your veins, it will..it will magnify your spirit.
Bill de Blasio: I love it. And you have lived that – you have lived that. You have lived it for all and we’ve all felt it. And in addition to the Key to the City, we have a special salute, because on Thursday, it’s your 75th birthday. And, today, Lenny [turns to Lenny Kaye] – today is Lenny’s 75th birthday. So, we have the incredibly elaborate presentation here. Come on, bring it on up. [Applause – official brings up and presents to Patti and Lenny two cup-cakes, with a lighted candle on each one]
Patti Smith: That’s awesome!
Bill de Blasio: Okay, So you each get a wish. We’ll let you think about it for a second – [Patti and Lenny pause before blowing out the candles on their cupcakes] –
Beautifully done. Look at that – Happy birthday!
Patti Smith: Thank you
Bill de Blasio And if you and Lenny would like to send a little musical message to the world, we would welcome it.
Patti Smith: Alright.. just.. thank you (taking out her Key to the City). I love this!
Bill de Blasio: We love you.
Patti Smith: Oh really? I know I just don’t work to.. gather accolades but I’m the kind of person who, if I get one I really love it. So… and I love.. [examines the Key] I love the key.. it’s beautiful. And also, to receive this at 75, just makes me look even more forward to the next 25 years.
Bill de Blasio: Amen
Patti Smith: So Lenny and I wrote this song in 1978. It’s really.. well, the essence of it is the collective.. a collective hope and also the collective power of the people. It was written specifically to honor the Hopi Indian tribe but it’s also a message to all people
[Patti and Lenny perform “Ghost Dance”]. [Applause]
Bill de Blasio: Undoubtedly, one of the coolest things that has ever happened at New York City Hall. God bless you. Thank you. Thank you. (to Lenny Kaye) Thank you, brother.
Lenny Kaye: It’s a pleasure
Bill de Blasio: Unbelievable.
Patti Smith: Well, I came here with nothing, just like when I first came to New York, and I’m leaving with a cupcake and the key! [Laughter]
Bill de Blasio:I love that. Oh my God, it just reminds me that that’s what people used to do. They used to just play music in a room together. That, like, takes you back through the ages. Amazing. Patti, Lenny, thank you so much. Thank you.
Well, we shall live. I like the way Patti left it just as clear as that in the last verse. And I think – that, again, that song’s moved me to the core for decades and decades. I can remember when I first heard it, just being blown away. But what a message for this moment, that we have to live, and we shall live, and we’ve got to stay by each other, and we’ve got to take care of each other. And we can do it – and this is what (it’s been all about) all these last two years – whatever we are talking about, the specifics, the message is we shall live and we can do this together. And I loved – I loved hearing just the faith and the hope you heard from Patti, her own journey here in New York City, but also just faith in what this place can do for people. And it’s still true. It’s been true for generations. So, that is our mission together, my friends, and we continue it.
Happy Birthday, Patti, honorary New Yorker,
and happy birthday, Patti, World Citizen,
and inspiration to us all
Happy 75th birthday!