The Nobel Prize ceremony was held in Sweden over the weekend, and in honor of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature, Patti Smith performed his song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the dignitaries and luminaries in attendance. Her rendition was very shaky at first, with Smith stopping the song early on so she could apologize for being nervous, but it became more and more powerful as she continued on and found her footing. It was a touching tribute to Dylan made even more touching by how much it clearly meant to Smith, with some of the audience members seemingly brought to tears by the end—as seen in the video, which is posted below.
This week, Smith wrote a piece for The New Yorker about the experience, and it makes her emotional performance even more impactful than it already was. Titled “How Does It Feel” (a Dylan reference, naturally), the essay opens with a scene before Smith is born, with her father helping a taxi driver navigate Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive in the middle of a snowstorm while her mother is in labor. She’s using it to establish that she’s just as human as anyone else, and that’s something she’s been reflecting on in the lead-up to a big show she has in Chicago later this month for her 70th birthday.
Before that concert, though, she had to make her appearance at the Nobel ceremony, which she had signed on to even before knowing that Dylan would be the man she was there to honor. However, once that news came out, she knew she had to do something special:
I found myself in an unanticipated situation, and had conflicting emotions. In his absence, was I qualified for this task? Would this displease Bob Dylan, whom I would never desire to displease? But, having committed myself and weighing everything, I chose to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song I have loved since I was a teenager, and a favorite of my late husband.
From there, Smith breaks down the day of the ceremony, eventually leading up to her performance. She recognized her shaky start immediately, and figured she would eventually calm down and continue just fine, but it didn’t happen:
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.
Smith then describes her emotions after the song, and how she felt she had “faltered” in her tribute, but some of the people in attendance told her not to think of it like that:
They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles.
The conclusions Smith draws from the experience are as touching as the song itself, and you can read it all for yourself at this link.