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New York’s legendary proto-punk singer Patti Smith receives key to the city

Singer Patti Smith performs at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen August 13, 2015. REUTERS/Erik Refner/Scanpix DenmarkATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. DENMARK OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN DENMARK. NO COMMERCIAL SALES.

Famed singer-songwriter and New Yorker Patti Smith received an honorary key to the city from Mayor Bill de Blasio during a post-Christmas press conference on Monday.

Smith, who turns 75 on Thursday, was joined by longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, who celebrated his 75th birthday Monday. The pair were presented with candle-lit cupcakes and both made wishes before blowing out the candles and then performing Smith’s hit song “Ghost Dance” – a personal favorite of the mayor’s.

“There are so many artists and musicians out there, but there is only one Patti Smith,” said de Blasio before presenting the key. “To me, Patti Smith has an authenticity that you just don’t find in many other places [than New York City].”

Referring to Smith as “the godmother of punk”, de Blasio continued to name her achievements and contributions to the city which included producing and revolutionizing an artistic movement in the late 1960s and 70s that helped make the city what it is today, as well as paving the way for artists in the future.

Although she is not originally from New York, Smith spent her most formative years were spent in the city when she moved here in 1967 and began working at a bookstore. 

It was here that she met longtime partner and collaborator, Robert Mapplethorpe, and began her journey into art, literature and most notably music. The rock and roll hall of famer has received many awards and accolades during her 50 year career, but it was clear that this one particularly moved her.

“I kept thinking when I learned of this honor this morning, ‘What have I given New York City to earn this?’” said Smith. “But most of all I kept thinking of what New York City has given to me. When I came here I just had a few dollars in my pocket, nowhere to stay and no real prospects, but I came here to see what I was made of.”

Smith attributed her love of the city to its diversities and opportunities, as well as the collective of artists she grew close with during her time here – especially during the 1970s. 

While Smith left New York in 1979 and moved to Detroit to marry Fred “Sonic” Smith and have two children, the city remained dear to her; upon her husband’s death in 1994, she and her children returned to New York. 

“It was probably the hardest time of my life,” said Smith of the period following her husband’s death. “But again, with hard work and enthusiasm, the city embraced me and gave me another chance to rebuild my life and evolve as an artist.”

While Smith and Kaye were planning on performing for their birthdays this week respectively at the Bowery Ballroom and Brooklyn Steele, the artists were forced to postpone shows because of the threat of the increasingly prevalent Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. 

Instead they performed a rousing acoustic rendition of “Ghost Dance”, originally inspired by the Hopi people of Arizona, which the mayor said “to this very hour” inspired and amazed him. 

“I know we don’t do this for the accolades, but I just love this,” said Smith after receiving the honorary key. “I wish I could give New York the key to me.”

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