Patti Smith falters in Stockholm tribute to an absent Bob Dylan

Representing the Nobel laureate at the prize-giving, the US singer admitted nerves in performance at Swedish academy

A very nervous Patti Smith initially stumbled through A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall in Stockholm on Saturday in a performance given to mark Bob Dylans Nobel prize for literature.

Making the award, Horace Engdahl, a Swedish literary historian and critic and member of the Swedish academy that awards the prize, responded to international criticism of the choice of a popular lyricist as recipient.

Engdahl said that when Dylans songs were heard first in the 1960s, all of a sudden much of the bookish poetry in our world felt anaemic.

The academys choice of Dylan, Engdahl said in Swedish, seemed daring only beforehand and already seems obvious.

And it was an unconventional prize-giving night in more ways than one. Dylans failure to attend the august gathering in Stockholm meant that Smith, the American singer most famous for her 1975 album, Horses, and the hit song Because the Night, was attending as his proxy.

The occasion proved too much for the singer, 69, who faltered after a few verses. Forgetting the lyric I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin, she apologised quietly but profusely to the jewel-bedecked audience and asked if she could start that section of the song again. I am so nervous, she explained.

Smith was encouraged by applause from the gathered dignatories and members of the Swedish royal family.

Her performance followed Engdahls justificatory speech, which opened with the question: What brings about the great shifts in the world of literature? Often it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the high sense, and makes it mutate.

In this way, Engdahl argued, the novel had once emerged from anecdote and letters, while drama had eventually derived from games and performance.

In the distant past all poetry was sung or tunefully recited, he said. Dylan had dedicated himself to music played for ordinary people and tried to copy it.

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