By Amanda Wicks
Even before the Nobel Committee announced it would award its 2016 Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, Patti Smith was set to perform at the ceremony. At the time, she intended to sing one of her own songs, but decided instead to honor Dylan by performing one of his after she learned about the award.
That experience didn’t go entirely as planned, though. Smith appeared to forget—or was unable to sing—the words in the second verse. She stopped the song, apologized and admitted how nervous she was and asked the orchestra to begin again. It’s an experience she wrote about today for The New Yorker.
In the piece, Smith described the painstaking preparation she went through in order to sing the song, and how everything changed when she got on stage. “The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing,” she wrote in the essay. “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.”
Smith continued, “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.”
Even though she wanted to provide a different kind of performance, Smith knew there was a lesson to what she had gone through at the ceremony. Toward the end, she concluded with fitting advice. “When my husband, Fred, died, my father told me that time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them,” she wrote. “I have found this to be true in the greatest and smallest of matters. Looking to the future, I am certain that the hard rain will not cease falling, and that we will all need to be vigilant.”