Ahead of her 75th birthday on Thursday (December 30), Patti Smith was bestowed with the key to her adopted home of New York City.
She received the honour yesterday (December 27) at a press conference held by outgoing mayor Bill De Blasio, who, in the last week of his tenure, also gave keys to filmmaker Spike Lee and senator Chuck Schumer. Noting his personal affinity for the 1970s’ punk movement, De Blasio praised Smith for having “an authenticity that you just don’t find [in] that many other places” and an “ability to cut through all the swirl around us and speak some more profound truths”.
“Some have called Patti Smith the godmother of punk,” De Blasio continued in his speech, “[and] I think it’s a fair phrase because she inspired so many people, helped shape a whole artistic movement, and in many ways a political movement as well.
“Her work as a musician, as a singer, as a lyricist, as an activist – so many elements influenced so many people and showed people a way. And when we honor people, I particularly think about the pathfinders – the people who show the way to so many others. There’s a lot of artists out there who realise what they could do and what they could say because they heard the works of Patti Smith.”
In her own speech, Smith touched on her origins in New York, having moved from “a rural, rural area of South Jersey” in 1967 with “just a few dollars in my pocket, nowhere to stay [and] no real prospects”. She explained that when she moved back to New York in 1994, 15 years after she’d moved to Detroit with her late husband, the city “embraced me again [and] gave me another chance to rebuild my life and continue to evolve as an artist”.
“I wish I could give New York City the key to me,” she joked, “because that’s how I feel about our city. With all its challenges and difficulties, it remains – and I’m quite a traveler – the most diverse city, to me, in the world.”
Also present at the conference was the longstanding Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, with whom Smith has played since her band’s inception in 1974. Together they performed an acoustic rendition of ‘Ghost Dance’ (a deep cut from Smith’s 1978 ‘Easter’ record), which De Blasio noted was “unbelievably powerful to me and among so many others”, and “one that I am, to this hour, moved by”.
Take a look at the press conference – with Smith receiving the key at 26:20, and her performance of ‘Ghost Dance’ at 40:15 – below:
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) December 27, 2021
Back in August, Smith released an EP of live recordings minted at New York’s iconic Electric Lady studio. It marked her first release since 2012, when the multi-hyphenate dropped her most recent full-length effort, ‘Banga’. In addition to five of her own tracks, the ‘Live At Electric Lady’ record features covers of tracks by Bob Dylan (‘One Too Many Mornings’) and Stevie Wonder (‘Blame It On The Sun’).
Ahead of her headlining performance at this year’s Cop26 (the United Nations Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow, Smith opened up about her continuing fears for the environment. Smith recalled meeting the Dalai Lama with Adam Yauch, when the late Beastie Boys member asked the spiritual leader: “What’s the number-one thing that young people can do to make a better world?”
According to Smith, the Dalai Lama replied: “Look after the environment.” She continued: “I thought it was so beautiful. That was his number-one preoccupation. Not to free Tibet, but to take in hand a global concern that was going to affect us all, on a scale we haven’t seen before.”
Reviewing one of Smith’s recent shows in London, NME’s Leonie Cooper wrote: “It’s midway through ‘Land: Horses/Land of A Thousand Dances’ that it becomes crystal clear: Patti Smith is the world’s greatest living rock star. Furiously flailing across the Royal Albert Hall’s storied stage in her trademark monochrome Ann Demeulemeester outfit and imploring us to do the watusi, her mighty howl fills the room; hard and heroic, tough and tender and impossible not to be moved by, physically as well as emotionally.”