When Patti Smith found out that she would be taking the stage at the Nobel Prize ceremony to honor Bob Dylan, she was wrought with anxiety. In a new essay published for the New Yorker, Smith recalled, “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?” She then goes on to detail the immense influence that Dylan’s work had on her life, and her reasoning for choosing to perform Dylan’s track “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (which was more than simply the fact that it was raining on the day of the ceremony):
I thought of my mother, who bought me my first Dylan album when I was barely sixteen. 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. I played the record over and over, my favorite being “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” 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.
The essay quickly moves into a detailed account of the actual performance, and how the nerves to honor a figure so great ultimately got to her, forcing the lyrics out of her head, and causing her to pause, asking for forgiveness from the audience:
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. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.
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.
Check out the incredibly moving essay in full here, and watch Smith’s performance from the ceremony below.