What Patti Smith Said to Me in Her Pause
Bad Girl Rock Star of “Because the Night” dons Puritan Chic in a tribute all at once to our forebears, our creative talent and the values that do make America great
A girl born in “the vortex of a Chicago snowstorm,” whose association with Swedish royalty was based in fairy tales, went to sing before the blue-eyed King and Queen last Saturday in Stockholm. Patti Smith, a lover of enfants terribles, including her moody and notably-absent colleague Bob Dylan, bought a new suit and trimmed her hair. OK, she did keep it grey while the coiffed Queen sported a tiara, but Smith modeled a deep respect for the Nobel Prize. She seemed to approach the enormity of performing on behalf of Literature Laureate Dylan and the honor of her country’s art form with appropriately genuine humility, class and good will.
Smith said in The New Yorker piece she wrote yesterday that she rehearsed constantly in the 2 months she had to nail “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” making certain that she could “convey every line” of the song’s raw truth and beauty. A master to begin with, and, well, a rock star, a real one, now she felt ready. Have any of us ever felt that ready when we’ve stepped up to a mic?
After a hushed introduction befitting Aaron Copeland and velvet seats, Patti Smith started to sing exquisitely and in her own authentic voice. Smith’s notes, combined with the prophetic lyrics of our truculent truth teller — as haunting, magnificent and true today as in 1962 — transported all listeners. Although Smith came with the desire to do honor to the ceremony — as well as her genre, her gender, probably her country, and certainly the kindred artist who wrote her song — she faltered. Two minutes in. She paused. Full stop. And apologized, admitting, as unpretentiously as her undyed hair, that she was nervous. She looked like a school girl despite her 70 years this month: sad and vulnerable and aware. It should have been awkward or horrifying, but it was too surprising and, as overwhelmed as Smith seemed, she also seemed oddly comfortable. Requesting a reset, she resumed (!). Haltingly, losing some words again a few lines later, she persevered. And became sublime again.
I think the applause made me cry as much as the poetry of the whole affair because there was empathy in it. Haven’t we all failed? And publicly. And those who are bold, aah, the most miserably? (I only wish I had ever failed as grandly as Smith). A room full of tuxedoed Nobel Laureates and their champions: who better to know the anguish of set backs after years of work or the public humiliation of having to stop oneself in mid-verse; to have the earnestness to apologize or the grit to pick up again? the dedication to getting it right and the integrity and courage to face failure?
Arna Poupko Fisher, in the newly published book “More Than Managing: The Relentless Pursuit of Leadership” — in honor of The Wexner Foundation’s 30th anniversary — wrote about her inventor father that he was “equally at home in the dualities of certainty and ambiguity”. In her essay she maintains that the best leaders and innovators are comfortable with “the unknown outcomes and reality of human vulnerability and likely failure.”
I think about Dylan and all his weird phases (actually sounds like he’s in another one now) — how his acoustic fans booed him when he started playing electric guitar, how he alienated people during his Christian spell — and about how visionaries and seekers often dwell in discomfort and make those around them even more uncomfortable. And yet they offer us a leadership lesson, to paraphrase Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”: they go back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’ and walk to the depths of the deepest black forest. In other words, they aren’t afraid of failure and, in a landscape of disaster, they look at darkness straight on.
Patti Smith said to me in her pause, “honesty, courage, respect for others, hard work, humility, perseverance, dignity, breaking with convention, no airs, being tough and gentle while aging, copping to failure, going for broke: this is what makes America great. Our country’s founders modeled it, our best folk singers, rebels, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs practice it, and it is what our greatest leaders embrace.” Not what I expected to hear, and it was a balm.
Angie Atkins, a Wexner Heritage alum (Metrowest 08), is the Director of Wexner Heritage Alumni and also the editor of WexnerLEADS, the Wexner Foundation’s blog. When she was 18 Angie taught a mini-course at Tufts University entitled (appropriately sophomorically) “The Greatest American Literature: Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and Bob Dylan.” She did end up graduating with a BA in English from Yale University and ran her own company out of Israel for 22 years. Angie serves on the Executive Committee of Romemu, a neo-chasidic and radically inclusive shul on the Upper West Side. Angie can be reached at email@example.com.