Patti Smith was set to honor the Nobel Prize winner for Literature a few months ago, equipped with one of her songs in mind. But plans changed when Bob Dylan, a contemporary and personal hero, was given the esteemed honor in October.
Smith performed Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the Stockholm ceremony for winners on Saturday and had to stop her performance in the middle after struggling to sing some of the words. In a new piece for The New Yorker, the 69-year-old singer-songwriter explained her history with the song and why she selected it.
“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?” Smith writes. “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 teenager, and a favorite of my late husband.”
Smith recalls meticulously rehearsing the song — “I had it in my mind to sing the song exactly as it was written and as well as I was capable of doing,” she adds — whenever she could and felt prepared for the big night; she remembers rehearsing flawlessly, thinking of her mother who bought her first Dylan album, and her late husband Fred Smith. After a first verse that Smith calls “a bit shaky,” she couldn’t sing the lyrics as she went on.
“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 huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond,” Smith writes. “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.”
Smith apologized to the crowd, which applauded encouragingly. She then asked the band to start over and ultimately completed the song.
Read Smith’s full essay at The New Yorker, and catch her performance below.