“P U N K is back in the East Village,” reads the Instagram comment from neighborhood street-art curators East Village Walls.
That might be a stretch, but this imposing portrait of Patti Smith just went up on East Second Street, near First Avenue. It’s by Huetek, the Brooklyn-born artist who has previously dedicated walls to Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, and Mike Tyson.
It’s a fitting time to honor Patti Smith’s East Village legacy, since her anthem “Because the Night” is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In Billboard’s oral history of the song, Smith mentions that she was living in a six-floor walkup in the East Village when her breakthrough album, Easter, was released with the Springsteen-penned song as its single.
At the time, in 1978, Smith resided at One Fifth Avenue, in an apartment she had bought with her boyfriend Allen Lanier, guitarist for Blue Oyster Cult. They were living below photographer Sam Wagstaff’s penthouse, where Robert Mapplethorpe had shot the iconic cover of Smith’s Horses album in 1975. Huetek based his mural on an outtake from the Mapplethorpe session, used by Arista Records as a publicity shot.
Smith’s apartment at One Fifth Avenue wasn’t her first in the East Village area. In her memoir Just Kids, she recalls moving out of Mapplethorpe’s place in Brooklyn in 1968 and into a sixth-floor walkup in the neighborhood, where she tried her hand at painting Frida Kahlo-esque self-portraits. Alphabet City was “still a danger zone,” and she soon returned to Brooklyn after her apartment was robbed.
Smith describes the scene on St. Marks Place back then:
Long-haired boys scatting around in striped bell-bottoms and used military jackets flanked with girls wrapped in tie-dye. There were flyers papering the streets announcing the coming of Paul Butterfield and Country Joe and the Fish. “White Rabbit” was blaring from the open doors of the Electric Circus. The air was heavy with unstable chemicals, mold, and the earthy stench of hashish. The fat of candles burned, great tears of wax spilling onto the sidewalk.
In 1972, Smith again moved out of Mapplethorpe’s place, this one in the Chelsea Hotel. While he took a raw space at 24 Bond Street, across from where John Lennon and Yoko Ono kept an apartment, Smith moved in with Lanier on East 10th Street. She got a part-time job at Strand Book Store and wrote her second collection of poetry, Witt. The apartment was “small and pretty, with French doors opening onto a view of a garden,” she wrote in Just Kids. It was “just a block away from St. Mark’s Church,” the site of her 1971 debut as a poet. Her performance there, with guitarist Lenny Kaye, would spark her career as a musician.
Smith was living on MacDougal Street by the time of her June 1975 gigs down the block at the Other End, her group’s first with a drummer. She befriended Bob Dylan at one of the shows, and a Village Voice critic wrote that she seemed “destined to be the queen of rock & roll for the Seventies.” Indeed the cover of Horses became instantly iconic when it was released later that year. Here’s Camille Paglia explaining why she considered it “the most electrifying image I had ever seen of a woman of my generation”:
Before Patti Smith, women in rock had presented themselves in conventional formulas of folk singer, blues shouter, or motorcycle chick. As this photo shows, Smith’s persona was brand new. She was the first to claim both vision and authority, in the dangerously Dionysian style of another poet, Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors. Furthermore, in the competitive field of album-cover design inaugurated in 1964 with Meet the Beatles (the musicians’ dramatically shaded faces are recalled here), no female rocker had ever dominated an image in this aggressive, uncompromising way.
In 1976, Smith and Allen moved into One Fifth Avenue, a grand 1920s Art Deco building at East 8th Street, near Washington Square Park (in 2014, Keith Richards purchased a duplex there for $10.5 million). There, in 1977, Smith wrote her poetry book Babel while recuperating from a fall off of the stage in Tampa, Florida. Future punk historian Legs McNeil described the place as a “sparse luxury apartment” with a portable record player on the floor next to a mattress. According to Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Smith had an altar in her bedroom consisting of a photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and a first edition of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
In May of 1978, Smith had a chance lunch with Andy Warhol in the building’s restaurant. “All I could think about was her b.o.,” Warhol wrote in his diary. “She wouldn’t be bad-looking if she would wash up and glue herself together a little better.” Warhol wasn’t the only one who wanted to see Smith cleaned up; when Arista released Horses, label head Clive Davis suggested they airbrush the hint of a mustache from Smith’s portrait. She refused.
With her windfall from “Because the Night,” Smith leased a one-story building on East 10th Street with the intention of opening a cafe there. She imagined it as “a small haven where poets and travelers might find the simplicity of asylum”; a simple place offering “just silence black coffee olive oil fresh mint brown bread.” But the cafe never came to fruition; instead she packed her bags and joined the man who would become her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, in Detroit.
Of course, Patti Smith would return to downtown Manhattan. Since the late ’90s, she has lived in a “townhouse on the edge of Greenwich Village,” as the New York Times described it. Who knows, maybe she’ll visit the mural, just like Debbie Harry did with hers.