We’re going back to November 4, 1973 on a rooftop near Times Square when a magical New York thing happened. Patti Smith, renowned rock ‘n roller for nearly four decades, was then a kid who occasionally performed poetry. She redefined herself as a rock band leader on the rooftop called Le Jardin of the now defunct Diplomat Hotel.
I’ve long held this idea about the symbiotic relationship between New York celebrities and New York City. Simply put, the celebrity would not be who he or she is without having incubated his or her talent in New York City; conversely, New York City would not have the creative energy it has without the artists it inspires.
Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, is an example of such a New York celebrity. Raised in the South, he simply could not have been the Tony Kushner we love without New York City. Conversely, New York City could not be the city it is without the genius of Tony and artists like him. Laurie Anderson, the cutting edge performance artist, is another example. Born in the Midwest, she found (and keeps reinventing) her artistic self in New York. The landscape architect Ken Smith, about whom I wrote in my last post, is another such celebrity whose NYC incubation proved to be pivotal to his career. Woody Allen and Jon Stewart would not be who they are without the inspiration of New York City – and New York City would not be as inspiring as it is without the likes of Woody and Jon. Leonard Bernstein and the Gershwin brothers are more examples. Even Abraham Lincoln’s rise to fame is because of his political advances in New York City. The list goes on and on.
Patti Smith, most famous for being a rock ‘n roller, also fits this symbiotic NYC celebrity definition. After high school, she quit her factory job in the north side of Chicago and left with just about nothing for New York City.
Just Kids is Patti Smith’s National Book Award Winner and #1 New York Times Bestseller about her devoted relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe from the time she arrived in New York in the late 60s until his death in 1989, and their simultaneous rise from obscurity to fame in the tumultuous New York City of the 1970s. On page 232 of Patti’s remarkable book, she talks about when she began to see herself as a rock band leader rather than as a performing poet, and it happened on a rooftop near Times Square. From Just Kids:
“On the anniversary of the death of Rimbaud, I gave the first of my “Rock and Rimbaud” performances, reuniting me with Lenny Kaye. It was held on the roof of Le Jardin, in the Hotel Diplomat off Times Square. The evening began with the Kurt Weill classic, “Speak Low,” saluting Ava Gardner’s depiction of the goddess of love in One Touch of Venus, accompanied by the pianist Bill Elliott. The balance of the program consisted of poems and songs revolving around my love of Rimbaud. Lenny and I reprised the pieces we had done at St. Mark’s and added the Hank Ballard song “Annie Had a Baby.” We looked out at the crowd and were amazed to see people ranging from Steve Paul to Susan Sontag. For the first time it occurred to me that, instead of this being a onetime event, we had the potential of something to build on.”
After having had the privilege of seeing her perform twice this year, once at Clinton Castle and once at Webster Hall, I can personally attest that, 38 years after her Le Jardin epiphany, Patti Smith continues to pack performance venues and inspire her devoted fans who live not only in New York City but across the globe. And it all began on a midtown Manhattan rooftop.
(Please note the first illustration and the band photo were taken from the internet)