“As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure,” wrote Patti Smith in a new essay penned for The New Yorker. The singer-songwriter and author was describing her recent experience performing a Bob Dylan song at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.
Smith detailed being chosen to perform prior to learning that Dylan was this year’s recipient of the prestigious Nobel Prize In Literature. She had originally planned to perform one of her own songs, but after Dylan was chosen Smith instead decided to cover one of her favorite Dylan originals, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Her performance while backed by an orchestra at Stockholm Concert Hall saw Smith stumble on part of the lyrics and be forced to restart one of the sections, leading to her “humiliating sting of failure.”
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.
Smith also described getting words of encouragement from Nobel scientists, how her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and mother were on her mind during her stay in Sweden and more. Head to The New Yorker for the full essay.
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