August 4, 2021

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Patti Smith, the Nobel and the song that will outlast him

More than 20 years ago I decided that if there’s any Bob Dylan song that will go down in history as poetry, if any song will outlast him and stand the test of time it’s A Hard Rain‘s Gonna Fall, a song that becomes more true and more scary every year.  It’s an apocalyptic vision.  It’s not about love and compassion, that’s for sure.

Poetically it is amazing and I’ve never heard a version by Bob I didn’t like. One of the more interesting versions Bob did is from the first Rolling Thunder tour where he rocked it up using a speeded up version of the “Hoochie Coochie Man” blues riff before each line in the verse.  It totally blew me away. The Concert for Bangladesh version is also incredible and quite possibly the standout of that song for me. The one done with the orchestra in Japan in 1994 ain’t bad either.  

In the far distant future when Dylan’s songs are studied, I am willing to bet that this will be one of the major songs under contention.

When Patti Smith announced she would sing the song at the Nobel ceremony, I thought if any singer will bring out the poetry and the intensity of that song, it’s her.  When I watched the clip, I quickly realized on the third line that she didn’t learn the song.  And considering the last line of the song, I was truly astounded.  What went wrong?  I don’t know, except I don’t think she really knew the song. It wasn’t about showing humanity, it wasn’t about singing with soul, it was about paying tribute and simply knowing your song well before you start singing at an awards ceremony that was quite controversial to begin with.

Patti Smith performs A Hard Rains Gonna Fall at the 2016 Nobel ceremony.

For years Dylan fans circulated petitions and all the professors wrote big essays on why Dylan should get the Nobel Prize and then it did happen, well, I listened to Bob Dylan to get away from stuff like the Nobel Prize. 

But if you’re going to do it, then do it right and learn the song, so you can show all the people on that committee (and all the professors and social critics) who thought  it wasn’t deserved why it was deserved.

On that count, the performance unfortunately failed.  It’s one thing if you break a string, or forget a line or fuck up a verse now and then.  It happens.  But in this case, it was clear on every verse, she didn’t learn the song.  Maybe she thought she knew it. But to me, one of the biggest no’s in performing is stopping a song.  I don’t care who it is.

I felt embarrassment watching Patti Smith. But I will always be grateful to her for being both hip and smart enough to pick Dark Eyes as a duet on 1995 Fall Tour.  It was the highlight of every night.

Dylan looked so fucking young, and I know he didn’t look that young. But that was in the days where he could turn and look 20 years younger and sometimes more.