Patti Smith, the Nobel Ceremony and a Turn of Beautiful Grace

It was announced on October 13th that Bob Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The discussion of whether his work was worthy of such an honor ensued. It is, if not for his Himalayan body of work, at least for this song alone.

It seemed as if Mr. Dylan wasn’t much interested in recognizing the honor. The committee heard nothing from him for nearly a week. They gave up trying to contact him. A member of the committee called his silence “impolite and arrogant.”

He finally contacted the Nobel folks and graciously told them their honor “left him speechless.” No wonder they hadn’t heard from him. However, he told them regretfully he would not be able to attend the ceremony in Oslo. In the speech he sent to be read in his absence, he admitted this recognition was something he “never could have imagined or seen coming” and that his chance of winning this coveted award was equal to standing on the moon one day.

He also turned down President Obama’s congratulatory invitation to the White House.

As a fix, it was announced that the elegant Patti Smith would attend the ceremony and perform in Dylan’s stead. Imagine the equal honor/pressure being chosen for such an assignment. On December 9th, she performed Dylan’s cataclysmic prophecy Hard Rainwritten in 1962 by the 21-year-old kid from the frozen, no-where iron-ore fields of northern Minnesota.

It was Smith’s performance of this difficult song that was the most remarkable thing about this whole remarkable story.

Patti is a uniquely beautiful woman with a rare heart-melting voice. She was the perfect choice. But the most extraordinarily wonderful part of her performance is curiously where she lost her place in the lyrics. It happened about a third of the way into her performance (at 2:03 below).

She tried her best to recover and move through it without notice but without luck. She was too far off the trail. After a number of stumbling tries, you can see in her face the calculation of whether to stop, get her bearings and start over.

She looks to the conductor with deep embarrassment offering a helpless “I’m sorry. Can we start again?” She’s a soul laid bare, putting in mind a terrified high-schooler asking to start over in her try-out for the school musical. It’s humiliating but also requires a ton of personal presence.

Smith then turned to the audience and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so nervous.” She buried her face in her hands.

patti-smith-oslo2That simple, humble admission transforms the cavernous theater. Her audience, filled with some of the most important people in the world, erupts in a thunder of empathy. Their forgiving applause are a warmer assurance than if they were each able to hug her and offer assuring words like, “I run an entire country and don’t possess a fraction of the bravery you do. Don’t give it another thought my dear!”

It’s a moment of raw, stripped down human honesty in a setting of over-the-top pomp and positioning. A lovely collision of two worlds. We have Patti Smith, by day clad in simple knit cap, tattered black coat, well-worn work boots, her majestic mane, colored grey only by the years, combed straight down with no fuss whatsoever, living her humble life in Greenwich Village writing in coffee houses.  She performs, accompanied by a young man playing a well-worn folk guitar, for thousands of people decked with jewels, crowns and medals, any of which could fund the daily needs of a family for years. But they all connect so personally in this awkward, honest moment of humanity.

It’s really something beyond words.

As she starts again, she’s freed to give so much more of herself in the song and to her audience. Her audience daubs at tearing eyes.

Nothing speaks to the wonder of the performances like the performance itself. It’s just simply exquisite.

 

 

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