The name “Patti Smith” warrants no introduction. A musician, poet, artist, Instagram sensation—the list goes on. Maybe you’re familiar with her through encounters at bygone rock clubs from 1970s New York, where Smith branched out from giving poetry readings at the St. Mark’s Church’s Poetry Project and began setting her words to music with the help of her friend and collaborator, Lenny Kaye. Maybe you brushed shoulders with her and Robert Mapplethorpe at the likes of CBGB or Max’s Kansas City, watching them immerse themselves into the burgeoning so-called “punk” scene.
Or, maybe you’re a millennial or Gen Z who first heard of Smith not through her music, but her writing. With the sensation of Just Kids—her 2010 memoir of her life with Mapplethorpe, two young artists navigating urban bohemia—Smith assembled a new generation of young people hoping to absorb a semblance of her artistry by reading her work. I would know; I’m one of them.
These generations of fans came together for Smith’s annual shows at Brooklyn Steel on December 29th and 30th, the latter in celebration of her 77th birthday. Joined by her band—comprised of Kaye, Tony Shanahan, Jay Dee Daugherty, and Jackson Smith, her son—Smith’s performance was as riveting as ever. She graced the stage with infectious enthusiasm, jested with fans who kept shouting “I love you!” (to whom at one point she replied with a deadpan “Good for you,”), and laughed as she and her band forgot the setlist on multiple occasions.
The night’s was set by Smith’s moving tribute to her longtime friend, Tom Verlaine. In a eulogy she wrote for The New Yorker, in the days following Verlaine’s passing on January 28, 2023, Smith recalls meeting him in 1973 and going to an early Television gig: “As I watched Tom play, I thought, Had I been a boy, I would’ve been him.” Their relationship became a legend in rock history, constant companions through fame, loss, and everything in between.
That night in Brooklyn, she welcomed her birthday celebration with a story of the pair’s favorite niche bookstore, Flying Saucer News and Prosperity Clinic. In her account, they’d spend hours loitering around the store, reading books on extraterrestrial conspiracy theories. As a result, the shop’s owner was frustrated to the point where he’d close the store for 20 minutes or so, hoping they’d disappear. “We’d just sit across the street and wait,” she ended, an amused smile on her face.
Smith and her band followed with a beautiful rendition of Television’s “Guiding Light.” A black-and-white photo of Verlaine was projected behind them, his hand covering his right eye and his mouth in an almost smirk. Smith’s voice was filled with sadness, as it tends to be when performing her own songs, though one can imagine how many stories of her time with Verlaine were flooding her mind as she sang his words. No further mention of Verlaine was made that night; instead, she let her story and her song speak for themselves, telling us only what she allowed us to know.
One of the most captivating facets of Smith’s character is her combination of the past and the present. She seems to exist in a constant state of nostalgia, while simultaneously being aware of the current state of the world (often, despairingly so). Following her Verlaine tribute, she covered Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” signaling toward current affairs and imploring the audience to consider their complicity amid constant turmoil. For her, revisiting the past fuels the present; art cannot exist on its own.
As we listened to her sing the words of Verlaine and Dylan, they were not simple tributes to those she lost and whom she admired. They are a means of keeping her sentiments alive, reminding her audience that the impetus behind her work was—and has always been—her obsession with paintings, poetry, music, travel, all of the pieces of culture that informed her growth as an artist.
Even her brilliant Substack or her revered Instagram feed is a testament to her multifaceted nature. Each of her Instagram captions are short poems beginning with “This is…”, making even the mundane pieces of her life—such as her morning coffee, notebooks, or current read—seem powerful. When I tell friends of my admiration for her writing, I say, “She makes the most basic things sound so beautiful.” Perhaps it is mere hero worship, but it is telling of why Smith, decades after her rise to fame, remains one of the most fascinating artists in rock history.
As she stood on stage, in her customary uniform of neutral-toned shirt, pants, and jacket, her simplicity was astounding. And this is why she is so beloved: in our fast-paced contemporary culture, she is a reminder to take things slowly, remember what came before us, and honor those we miss and love.