POP+ Punk: Memories From Patti Smith's EMP-Opening Performance - "What Happens To This Place Will Be Up To All Of You"
My first workday at the nonprofit museum now known as MoPOP, then called EMP, was on May 15, 2000. About 35 of us gathered to begin our training as Visitor Service Representatives. Our training went on a bit longer than was planned—the original opening day target was Memorial Day weekend, but it became clear that things wouldn’t be ready at that time, so the museum found things for us to do until the new opening date, June 23, 2000.
As we continued to prepare the space for visitors, I was excited. As a rock 'n roll fan and a musician, I felt like I had found a home where I could do work that expressed my values and in which I could pass those values on to our visitors: listening, patience, discovering the new, and celebrating history.
June 23 came, and so did the multitudes. We were doing something new, and we had to make up a lot of it on the fly. We’d made best-laid plans, many of which had to be abandoned as unworkable and were replaced by whatever seemed like it might work at the time. And this is in the midst of blasting music, blinding light, hazes of purple and other hues, as well as the occasional barbecue scent. The museum opening was accompanied by three days of musical performances. I didn’t get to see that much of it because I was working, but what I saw was amazing: Paul Revere & the Raiders, Bo Diddley, and Dave Alvin among them. What stuck with me, however, was that I saw Patti Smith for the first time.
She played at the end of the first day of performances at the Mural Amphitheater. As soon as I got off work that day I headed straight over. I’d wanted to see her live for a very long time, but somehow it had never quite worked out. She was clearly excited to be a part of EMP’s grand opening celebration and made sure to acknowledge those ties in parts of her set. She opened with a Hendrix cover, "Hey Joe," and included a rendition of Nirvana’s "Heart Shaped Box" followed immediately by her ode to Kurt Cobain, "About a Boy." She made sure to mention the Stonewall anniversary in her comments between songs. But the heart of her set that evening was "Spell," her recitation of Allen Ginsberg’s "Footnote to Howl" set to music. The brief address she gave following that song is what stood out most to me.
"Thank you. Those words were 'Footnote to Howl,' written by Allen Ginsberg in Berkeley California in 1955," she said. "Allen was our friend and I know that if he would have been here, he would have appreciated what is the flawed but beautiful effort to try to do something new. What happens to this place and to the Experience Center (referring to EMP) will be up to all of you because two things can happen with these things: they can become like jive tourist attractions or they can become someplace that’s meaningful, someplace that houses knowledge, illumination, revolution, excitement, fun, sensual pleasure, all embodied within rock 'n roll."
Full setlist from Patti Smith's EMP performance:
So you want to be a rock n roll star
(notes anniversary of Stonewall)
Spell (Footnote to Howl)
Beneath the Southern Cross
Because the Night
Heart Shaped Box
About a Boy
Glitter in their eyes
People have the Power
Her words, "what happens to this place will be up to all of you" felt like they were addressed directly to me in my role as a member of the museum's front-line staff, but also as someone for whom EMP’s subject matter had been so crucially important for so long. She was telling us that billionaires can bankroll places like this, boards of directors can shepherd it, CEOs and curators and other leaders can make the various decisions that shape its missions, but what was going to make the real difference would be the voices and actions of those like me whose lives had been saved by rock 'n roll, and who experienced this music as not just a genre, not just a variety of pop culture, but as a saving Gospel.
That was a moment in my life, and there have not been many, that felt actually miraculous. To hear those words "what happens to this place and to the Experience Center will be up to all of you" and to hear them on my very first day working with museum visitors, was a gift, and I think that I have understood my job since in a much different way than I would have had I not heard those words.
I hope that today, 20 years later, those words will speak to you if you are a fan of what MoPOP celebrates, now inclusive of a broader range of pop culture experience than when we first opened. If music has saved you, if science fiction lights you up, if gaming has enriched you, if fantasy has cast its spell on you, if horror reanimates you, remember: what happens to the Museum of Pop Culture is up to all of you. Do not be silent; do not be docile; do not assume that others will take good care of the things you care about. It is up to all of us to ensure that this is a place where knowledge, illumination, revolution, excitement, fun, and sensual pleasure will continue to live, to shine, and to save all our lives.
Throughout the month of August, with POP+ Punk we’re exploring and celebrating the contributions of women in all things punk: the sound, the fashion, activism, and the culture. First Tech is a proud supporting sponsor of MoPOP's POP+ programming.