Patti Smith is the real deal. She’s one-of-a-kind, original. An innovator, a trailblazer. She is authentic. Last week, the singer, in all her authenticity, graced the Nobel ceremony in Sweden as it honored Bob Dylan with the prize for Literature. Dylan himself didn’t make the event (maybe he had Hamilton tickets?), so Ms. Smith came in his stead and performed a devastatingly beautiful, emotional, and timely rendition of Dylan’s 1963 song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
A verse or two in, she started to falter and then stopped singing altogether, as the guitar kept time. The song got away from her. It’s a fear of every performer. “Going up,” they call it. Maybe she forgot the lyrics. Maybe she lost her place on the music. Maybe she was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the prestige of the event. Maybe she was taken in by Dylan’s haunting words.
Then she said, “I’m sorry. I apologize, I’m so nervous.”
It was a moment that was precious and honest and unguarded. It was devoid of the gloss and polish that have become the currency of our auto-tuned culture. What she knows, how she sings, can’t be taught in music school. She isn’t here for “perfect.” She is here to crack you open.
I use to think being authentic meant not giving a fuck about what other people think. But Patti, who clearly wanted to do a good job for the crowd, proves that isn’t true. Then I thought it’s about being vulnerable. But I’ve had days where my mascara ran down my face for all to see as I cried on the subway—maybe you have, too; it only meant I had a bad day, not necessarily an authentic one.
Maybe there is no right answer, but, to me, it seems like authenticity comes from a willingness to be vulnerable. Being open to getting up in front of people when you have stage fright. Being open to admitting we need help. It’s laughing at ourselves when we get too serious or dropping the facade of “perfect” in the company of others. It’s writing when we think no one will read it or hitting “publish” even when the words don’t always come out right.
When Patti copped to being nervous, the audience of nobles, artists, scientists, and intellectuals didn’t boo or hiss. They didn’t storm out or demand their money back because she made a mistake. No, they applauded in support and maybe exhaled with relief with the knowledge that even a legend gets jitters. How amazing that we can still celebrate and be humbled when we see authenticity standing right in front of us! And, in her willingness to show her vulnerability, she gave permission for others to show theirs. Soon, tears streamed down the faces of women in tiaras and men in white tie. In a moment when she failed to be perfect, she shared an exquisite truth about authenticity. And the result is perfection.
And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall