Published Dec 15, 2016Bob Dylan didn't show up in person to accept his Nobel Prize in Literature last week, but Patti Smith was on hand in Stockholm to perform at the ceremony in his honour.
Smith performed a rendition of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" at the banquet on December 10, and during the song she went unexpectedly silent at one point. As it turns out, the silence was not Smith forgetting the words to the song, but rather being overwhelmed by emotion.
"I'm sorry, I'm so nervous," she said on stage, but now she has now written an essay for the New Yorker elaborating on the live hiccup.
Smith was selected to perform one of her own songs at the ceremony before the recipient of the award was announced, but when Dylan was revealed as the winner, Smith opted for a piece of Dylan's work instead. In the new essay, she describes "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" as "a song I have loved since I was a teen-ager, and a favourite of my late husband."
"From that moment, every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line," she continues. "Having my own blue-eyed son, I sang the words to myself, over and over, in the original key, with pleasure and resolve. I had it in my mind to sing the song exactly as it was written and as well as I was capable of doing. I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready."
She admits to waking up feeling anxious on the morning of the performance. "I thought of my mother, who bought me my first Dylan album when I was barely sixteen," she explains. "I also thought of my husband and remembered performing the song together, picturing his hands forming the chords."
She details her "shaky" but "passable" first verse, then says she was "struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them." Her nerves, mixed with the television cameras and room full of dignitaries left her unable to continue. "I hadn't forgotten the words that were now a part of me," she writes. "I was simply unable to draw them out."
And yes, she notes the perceived irony of this happening during a song that closes with the line: "And I'll know my song well before I start singing."
The essay ends with Smith moving past the "humiliating sting of failure" and coming to "the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics."
Ultimately, she reflects on her life and career up to the point of stumbling through last week's performance and adds it to her "seventy years of moments, seventy years of being human."
Read the essay in its entirety here, and watch footage from the performance in question below.