In my last post, I talked about imagining God, the father, the king, singing to us.
This post is about someone singing to a king—not the heavenly king, mind you, but Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, and Queen Silvia and Crown Princess Victoria, as well. Turns out that’s not easy, even for a musical superstar.
As organizers planned last year’s Nobel Prize awards ceremony, they asked Patty Smith to perform at the event. Then, when it was announced that her friend Bob Dylan had been named the Nobel laureate in literature, she chose to sing his “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
You’ve probably heard how she faltered during her performance and had to stop singing. She writes in The New Yorker that she was struck with an “overwhelming case of nerves.” It wasn’t that she’d forgotten the words, she says (though who could blame her, there are so many words in that song), she just couldn’t “draw them out.”
“I’m sorry,” she said meekly to the crowd as the orchestra softly played behind her. “Sorry.” She looked at the conductor, standing close by. “I’m sorry. Could we start that section?” And then to the audience, “I apologize. I’m so nervous.” The people responded with applause.
On the video of her performance, you can hear the announcer narrating the restart sotto voce, sounding as if he were calling a golf tournament. Smith gathered herself and completed the song, overcoming another, smaller lapse on the way.
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.
My guess is that Smith spent the night replaying her mistakes over and over in her mind. How could she fail on such a grand, international stage? But that wasn’t the end of it.
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.
There’s another phrase in the last stanza of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that grabs my attention. It’s “Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that Dylan, who is fond of biblical imagery, had the apostle Peter in mind when he wrote that. It was Peter who stepped out of the boat to meet Jesus, who was walking on the water. It was Peter who saw the waves and began to sink. It was Peter who then called out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And it was Jesus who reached out and caught him.
An artist lip syncing a song in a pre-packaged, flawless performance. How many times do we see that and move on, quickly letting it slide from our memory? Someone stepping out into the rain and waves, and struggling publicly, struggling beautifully, showing that struggles aren’t the same as failures. That I’ll remember for a long time.
(Patti Smith, “How Does It Feel,” The New Yorker, December 14, 2016)