This singer on stage, Patti Smith, mouthed the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," but her voice had left her body. Smith also went stiff. Her hands locked in place above her stomach, grasping onto one another. The guitar quieted down and slowed its rhythm, and Patti looked to the crowd: "I'm sorry," with a smile of discomfort. She tried to restart her voice but found choked sounds. "I'm sorry," again to the crowd. And then, looking to the conductor: "I'm sorry. Can we start that section..." The guitar had become a trickle of notes, and now its strings stopped vibrating entirely. Every sound left the room. Patti looked again toward the audience: "I apologize. I'm sorry. I'm so nervous." The crowd at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm started to clap.
I've been thinking about the pace and rhythm of failure stories. When do we tell stories about failure? How much time are we given to tell them? Who tells the story? How much do we know when we are trying to craft our understanding of the causes of our failures? At this moment for Patti Smith, the answers to these questions create a rather brutal set of circumstances. There's a single microphone through which only Patti can broadcast words, the interruption in the flow of a song creates the constant expectation that the music should resume, and the occasion of the Nobel Prize Ceremony celebrates the exact opposite of failure. A voice on the loudspeaker says: "Please. Start again."
We know from Patti's account in the New Yorker, four days later, that her body had out-of-nowhere entered into a state of panic: "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."
And worse: "This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me."
As I have read and re-read Patti's New Yorker reflection, I have found myself moved in new ways each time. I am reminded of how important it is to carve out spaces in public dialogue to bring failure out of the shadows and to make room to see into what is often a more fragile human experience than we like to admit.
We come to see that Patti's stumble resulted not from failure to prepare, which she did with absolute care and dedication. The stumble came in part because the song and Dylan meant everything to her: "I thought of my mother, who bought me my first Dylan album when I was barely sixteen" and "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" and "Having my own blue-eyed son, I sang the words to myself, over and over, in the original key, with pleasure and resolve." Above and beyond these factors, the Nobel Prize ceremony, with its venerated past, overcame the singer: "As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus."
But on stage, with an orchestra at her back and an audience waiting with anticipation, Patti had to accept that there were few precedents for interrupting a song to share the context for the panic now moving through her body. Not to mention, Patti needed to produce sound from a body electrified with anxiety staying cruelly within her. These circumstances are what make the remainder of the song, in my mind, a profound and remarkable artistic performance.
Patti keeps the song alive with fierce concentration. The orchestra comes on, the music comes to life, and Patti's body and voice start to unfold. Her right and left arm pump in a powerful march. She juts her body out to the left and pushes out her chest, with almost surreal power now in her voice. Her hands open up to the crowd and push away from her body. She forms a fist and punches the air as she sings: "And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it."
A few days later, Patti writes: "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."