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Mar 9, 2021
Patti Smith live at Brooklyn Museum: ‘It’s very moving to be here’
'Our story began in Brooklyn,' Smith said Tuesday as part of a celebration of the life of her one-time partner Robert Mapplethorpe
On Tuesday afternoon, Patti Smith, punk poet laureate of New York City, appeared in front of a physical audience for the first time in exactly a year. Standing in the center of the sky-lit rotunda of the Brooklyn Museum before a few dozen museum employees, dressed in her usual beatnik blacks and combat boots and backed by her bandmate Tony Shanahan, Smith’s voice echoed through the halls.
“Because the night belongs to Brooklyn!” she sang at one point, customizing the anthem she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen for her 1978 album, “Easter.”
Her performance Tuesday afternoon came as an installment of the ongoing statewide NY PopsUp festival currently happening across New York State, a series of pop-up performances from musicians, dancers, singers and more that will last until Labor Day. The intention is to not only jumpstart New York’s beleaguered entertainment sector, but also to rejuvenate and inspire residents of the state with live performances. Many of the events, including Smith’s performance, are live streamed via the NY PopsUp Instagram page. Smith’s daughter, Jesse, also streamed the show to her mother’s own Instagram page, where hundreds more fans tuned in.
The event was also to mark the 32nd anniversary of the death of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s one time partner. “Patti, you got famous before me!” Smith recalled him saying to her in 1978. The couple had been walking down 8th Avenue together when they first heard “Because the Night” drifting out of a storefront. Mapplethorpe, now well known for his black-and-white portraits and for documenting New York’s S&M scene in the ‘70s, would only live for another 11 years until his 1989 death from complications due to HIV/AIDS.
“He wanted to be an artist,” she said of young Mapplethorpe. “Our story began in Brooklyn, so it’s very moving to be here.”
After she moved to the city at age 21, she met, fell in love and lived with the aspiring artist in Brooklyn, spending hours exchanging ideas and creating drawings together. Their intense, often tumultuous, relationship was tender and caring, but not without its difficulties, as Smith documented in her critically acclaimed 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.” The couple often struggled to make ends meet, while Mapplethorpe grappled with his sexuality.
“The day before Robert died he asked me to write our story, I promised I would.” Smith said Tuesday. Smith read passages from “Just Kids” between songs, including originals like “Wing,” and “Dancing Barefoot,” as well as covers like Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang On To A Dream” and Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
With only a handful of audience members and nowhere for the sound to go, the echoes of her voice gave the performance an almost spiritual undertone.
“This is my kind of church,” wrote actress Troian Bellisario (“Pretty Little Liars”) in the comments of the livestream.
In many ways, Smith is as intrinsic to New York as the subway itself. When she arrived in 1967, she stepped into a blossoming world of beatnik, punk and hippie art, music, poetry, sex and social activism. By all accounts she found her people, quickly befriending Bob Dylan, hooking up with Sam Shepard and writing for Rolling Stone.
As Smith finished her set with “Because the Night”—a song she was initially reluctant to record with Springsteen due to his outsized fame—she stamped her foot and moved across the marble floor. Her last official shows prior to this, not including protests, private engagements and other live streams, took place at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, mere days before the collapse of the live music industry in March 2020. Her appearance at the Brooklyn Museum Tuesday served as a touching reminder that many of the New York musicians we love most are still here, waiting to return to play.
“We’re alive!” she said at the end of her set, just before she put her mask back on to leave the stage with a standing ovation still clapping for her. “God bless life.”