This past weekend, after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan declined to appear at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Instead, Patti Smith appeared in his stead, performing her version of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with orchestral accompaniment. At one point in the performance, Smith faltered and had to start over, having seemingly forgotten the words to the song, but the performance was still a deeply felt, powerful thing.
In a new essay for The New Yorker, Smith, a frankly amazing writer, reflects on the entire experience. She’d already been booked to perform at the ceremony before Dylan had been announced as a winner, but she changed the song she’d be performing to his song, one of her favorites. The way Smith writes about the scene in Stockholm is just beautiful: “As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen and some of the great minds of the world, armed with a song in which every line encoded the experience and resilience of the poet who penned them.” And on the infamous moment where she seemed to forget the words, she writes this:
The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing. The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them. From the corner of my eye, I could see the the huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond. Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.
This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me. I was obliged to stop and ask pardon and then attempt again while in this state and sang with all my being, yet still stumbling. It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,” and ends with the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.
The whole essay, on which Smith also reflects on her birth and on turning 70, is well worth a read; you can find it here.