How Does It Feel

patti-smith-nobel-prize

This was so (SO) good. I’ve clipped most of her essay below but not all. Here are excerpts from Patti Smith’s How Does It Feel from the December 14, 2016 issue of The New Yorker:


…In September, I was approached to sing at the Nobel Prize ceremony, honoring the laureate for literature, who was then unknown. It would be a few days in Stockholm, in a beautiful hotel, overlooking the water—an honorable opportunity to shine, contemplate, and write. I chose one of my songs that I deemed appropriate to perform with the orchestra.

But when it was announced that Bob Dylan had won the prize and accepted, it seemed no longer fitting for me to sing my own song. 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? But, having committed myself and weighing everything, I chose to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song I have loved since I was a teen-ager, and a favorite of my late husband.

From that moment, every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line. 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.

On the morning of the Nobel ceremony, I awoke with some anxiety. It was pouring rain and continued to rain heavily…By the time I reached the concert hall, it was snowing. I had a perfect rehearsal with the orchestra. I had my own dressing room with a piano, and I was brought tea and warm soup. I was aware that people were looking forward to the performance. Everything was before me.

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. I also thought of my husband and remembered performing the song together, picturing his hands forming the chords.

And then suddenly it was time. The orchestra was arranged on the balcony overlooking the stage, where the King, the royal family, and the laureates were seated. I sat next to the conductor. The evening’s proceedings went as planned. As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding. After a moving speech dedicated to him was read, I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen and some of the great minds of the world, armed with a song in which every line encoded the experience and resilience of the poet who penned them.

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.

Later, at the Nobel banquet, I sat across from the American Ambassador—a beautiful, articulate Iranian-American. She had the task of reading a letter from Dylan before the banquet’s conclusion. She read flawlessly, and I could not help thinking that he had two strong women in his corner. One who faltered and one who did not, yet both had nothing in mind but to serve his work well.

When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles. Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?

When my husband, Fred, died, my father told me that time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them. 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. The year is coming to an end; on December 30th, I will perform “Horses” with my band, and my son and daughter, in the city where I was born. And all the things I have seen and experienced and remember will be within me, and the remorse I had felt so heavily will joyfully meld with all other moments. Seventy years of moments, seventy years of being human.

Read the entire essay by Patti SmithHow Does It Feel (The New Yorker, December 14, 2016)

Watch the Video from the Nobel ceremony: Patti Smith – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (ceremonia Nobel 2016)


Photo: Patti Smith at Nobel 2016 via FoxNews

Comments

  1. I watched her performance with tears falling uncontrollably. For some of us of a certain age, she nailed it…the darkness that comes with news that portends some dread, the hope of a generation, the fear of uncertainty. Love her and she served Dylan well.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Kevin Byrnes says:

    A great description of loving life. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. i loved her humanity while singing this and love this background story

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A beautiful tribute for Bob Dylan and for living life. Kudos!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. She “somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.” I thought she was perfect, and the stumbling made it so much more memorable. Great piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow. Thank you David for sharing this. I am moved — beyond words — to where my heart speaks through my tears.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you sharing this! What a great performance.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on RULE13 Learning and commented:
    This is an extraordinary example of vulnerability…of being present and honest. My favorite line: “They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles.”

    Read it and watch it, please.

    Like

  9. Excellent! Thanks.

    Like

  10. i don’t know how she got through it. I cant get through the last verse while I’m humming it in the shower.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This knocked the wind out of me!

    “True singing is a different breath,
    about nothing.
    A gust inside the god.
    A wind.”

    —Rainer Maria Rilke

    Seems like she was having a moment of true singing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I give something of substance, even in times of stumble.

    Thank you, Patti Smith (and Dan, for sharing!)

    Paula

    Liked by 1 person

  13. She was so brave to start again and go through with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. She certainly was…and to think how many performances she has completed flawlessly – such a human moment.

    Like

  15. Wow. Thank you for sharing (still sitting here thinking about it…now ~I~ have no words…ha…)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. In a social media world that so often portrays the illusion of perfection, it’s good to see “raw, honest and vulnerable emotion” it connects us all.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. We’ve all experienced times such as this. Lucky I only ever had to face them on radio, not in visual contact with my audience. And when it happened, the station got more calls than ever, remarking on how it piqued their own emotions, as well. It does serve to be an example of fallibility, though it may not seem so at the time. Aloha.

    Liked by 1 person

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