When Patti Smith stumbled over the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song during the Nobel prize ceremony last week, it was because she was overwhelmed with nerves by the magnitude of the experience, not because she forgot the words to A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
Smith writes in an essay published Wednesday by the New Yorker that after loving the song since she was a teenager and rehearsing it incessantly in the months and days leading up to the ceremony, its lyrics “were now a part of me”.
“I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me,” she writes. “I was simply unable to draw them out.”
The singer-songwriter explains that she had chosen one of her own songs when she was invited in September to perform at the Nobel ceremony in honour of the eventual literature laureate. But when Dylan was announced as the recipient, she chose one of her and her late husband’s longtime favourites from his catalogue instead.
Smith writes that on the morning of the ceremony, “I thought of my mother, who bought me my first Dylan album when I was barely 16. She found it in the bargain bin at the five-and-dime and bought it with her tip money. ‘He looked like someone you’d like,’ she told me.
“It occurred to me then that, although I did not live in the time of Arthur Rimbaud, I existed in the time of Bob Dylan,” Smith writes. “I also thought of my husband and remembered performing the song together, picturing his hands forming the chords.”
Smith suddenly stopped singing during her performance at Stockholm’s Concert Hall on 10 December and asked the orchestra to begin again. “I apologise. I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” Smith said at the time.
In her candid, poetic piece published Wednesday, she described what happened. “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.”
Guests at the ceremony received her kindly and told her that her performance “seemed a metaphor for our own struggles”. She says the experience made her “come to terms with the truer nature of my duty.”
“Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform?” she writes. “It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?”