patti smith wrote a wonderful essay about fumbling her bob dylan tribute

'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.'

by Hannah Ongley
15 December 2016, 7:04pm

This is probably the only time we've been glad that Patti Smith is not on Twitter, where most of us go to explain our not-so-proud moments. Instead the O.G. punk poet has written a beautiful essay for The New Yorker about the performance she gave to honor Nobel Prize recipient Bob Dylan at the ceremony in Stockholm last week. Smith was in the middle of performing Dylan's 1962 song "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" to a daunting crowd of royals and laureates when she suddenly faltered over some of the lyrics. "I apologize, I'm sorry, I'm so nervous," she told her audience, which applauded enthusiastically, before continuing her heartfelt performance. 

In an essay titled "How Does It Feel," Smith reveals that she had originally agreed to sing one of her own songs with the orchestra, though this "seemed no longer fitting" once it was announced that Dylan had won the prize. "I found myself in an unanticipated situation, and had conflicting emotions," she writes of this surprise predicament. "In his absence, was I qualified for this task? Would this displease Bob Dylan, whom I would never desire to displease?" Eventually she decided to sing a song that she had loved since she was a teenager — and a favorite of her late husband's — before dedicating the following days to practicing it relentlessly. But, as she would still learn, nerves are a bitch. 

"The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing," Patti recalls of the big night. "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."

After mulling over her fumbled lines in the ensuing days, the lyrical genius realizes that her nerves created a moment Dylan would probably have been quite pleased with. "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,'" she says. "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." 

Trust Patti to pour her heart out twice when most of us would have been satisfied with the simple explanation, "2016." Read her whole essay here and watch last week's performance below. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Klaus Hiltscher via Flickr

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