PATTI SMITH. Singer. Songwriter. Poet. Performer. Guardian angel of the artful life. You cross genre, bend gender, capture our imaginations, and blow our minds.
You were Chicago-born and New Jersey-raised, but bred in the guts of New York City. You arrived here in the late 60s at a time when the streets were gritty, the characters weird and wild, and the lines of public and private blurred in the glow of the neon lights. You and Robert Mapplethorpe converged and vowed never to let go—from your small, squalid universe at the Chelsea Hotel to Max’s Kansas City, from a bottomless cup at the corner diner to the benches of Tompkins Square Park. You shaped each other with the City in your souls.
A 1971 poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church led to early recordings and an 8-week gig at the infamous CBGB’s in 1975. Then came Horses, your first studio album and your first dance with fame. It’s often cited as one of the greatest albums in music history, and you were deemed, in a review in Rolling Stone, “as original an original as they come.” When you brought that signature to your 1976 performance of “Gloria” on Saturday Night Live, it was a pulsating, mad-punk, feminist moment that slays us still, nearly 40 years later.
But even an original has debts. You tip your hat to Baudelaire, Burroughs and Ginsberg, the Brontës, the Beats, and William Blake. Musically, you were the bridge between the Velvet Underground and 1970s American punk, summoning the likes of Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Dylan, Callas, and Coltrane, along the way. Your respect and awe for the talent of others has made you one of rock-and-roll’s supreme cover artists, from the Who's "My Generation" to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
No one should try to encapsulate your breadth and depth—your piercingly intimate photographs and volumes of lucid verse, your unapologetic activism and abiding humanity. There are the albums, with Banga as recent as 2012; singles like “Because the Night,” co-written with Springsteen and a hit for a reason; and, of course, the award-winning book Just Kids, your stirring requiem to love and loss that we’ve dog-eared and devoured. “Life is the best thing we have,” you say, and it’s impossible not to believe you.
So, Patti Smith, speaking for my colleagues on this faculty, the students here before you, New Yorkers and artists everywhere… we hail you with this token of our collective esteem, the 2014 Barnard Medal of Distinction. You have space on our playlists, a legendary place in our culture, and a piece of our hearts.