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Patti Smith Reflects on ‘Case of Nerves’ at Dylan Nobel Ceremony

Singer discusses personal significance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in heartfelt essay

Patti Smith

Patti Smith reflected on her "overwhelming case of nerves" when she performed Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" at the Nobel Prize Ceremony.

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty

Patti Smith opened up about her emotional performance of Bob Dylan‘s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” during the Nobel Prize ceremony in a piece for The New Yorker. In her heartfelt essay, the singer detailed the “overwhelming case of nerves” she experienced and also discussed the personal significance of the song she chose to cover as well as Dylan’s impact on her life.

As Smith told Rolling Stone, she had initially planned to perform one of her songs before it was announced that Dylan was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In The New Yorker essay she said she chose to perform his “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” because it’s “a song I have loved since I was a teenager, and a favorite of my late husband [Fred Smith].'” The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album was also her first Dylan album, which her mother gave to her.

In the essay, Smith said she spent “every spare moment” practicing the song. On the morning of the ceremony she said she “awoke with some anxiety,” but she “confidently” went over the song before heading to Stockholm Concert Hall for the ceremony.

“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,” Smith wrote of her performance. “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 huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond,” she continued. “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.”

In video from the night, Smith appeared to be overcome with emotion. “This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me,” Smith confessed. “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 12 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.”

Despite her self-professed “public struggle” during the performance, she said she was met with kindness from Nobel scientists she encountered the next day. Smith concluded with a look to the future. “On December 30th I will perform Horses with my band, and my son and daughter, in the city where I was born,” she wrote in reference to her upcoming concert in Chicago at Riviera Theatre, which takes place on her birthday. “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, 70 years of being human.”

Smith will also perform on New Year’s Eve at Park West in Chicago.

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