When I think of life before our American Crisis – on a day, July 10, 2020, when it is increasingly clear we are living through an American Tragedy – I romanticize October 13, 2016, the day Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in literature was announced, as “my last happy day.”
This is not to say that I haven’t had countless moments of happiness since 2016, or that I haven’t experienced profound moments of joy amidst my darkness. Indeed, the past three years have overwhelmingly deepened my capacity for, and appreciation of, raw joy. And the darker things get for us all moving forward, the more we should all be seeking joy wherever we can find it.
No, when I talk about my “last happy day,” I’m talking about “happiness” with a lower-case “h”: that state of blissful security and contentedness that allows the most privileged of us to experience life’s pleasant serendipities as nothing more or nothing less, uncomplicated by a world that, from our narrow, coddled perspective, appears moral, fair, and ordered just right.
The 2016 Election, and everything that has happened since, burst my secure, content “happiness” bubble in a profound and likely permanent way. But on October 13, 2016, the earth beneath my feet felt firm, my lot in life and America’s slow but steady upward trajectory, felt secure.
And so when it was announced that Bob Dylan – who I see as one of the few truly towering figures in American letters over the past century – had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, that was, in every sense, a “happy” day.
Of course by December of 2016, when the Nobel ceremony was held – Bob was infamously too busy touring to attend – our world’s equilibrium had been dramatically upended.
In that context, in the shadow and uncertainty of the transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump, Patti Smith’s exquisitely imperfect performance of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” felt like a mixed expression of sorrow, hope, and, yes, Resistance:
“Hard Rain” is, in my own wholly subjective opinion, not even in the top 20 great feats of poetry, songwriting or literature in Bob Dylan’s catalogue. That’s not to say it’s not an extraordinary piece of art, it’s just that, when assessing Bob’s massive and luminous oeuvre, the curve tends to be pretty steep.
But I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel pitch-perfect in that moment, and you can feel that in the reactions – the tears – of the kings, queens, laureates and dignitaries in the audience that night.
I write and think a lot about the “liberal world order,” and how its destruction by Donald Trump and his dictator buddies is going to cause us all an unthinkable amount of pain in the long run. But I think for Americans – even me, despite my dire warnings – that discussion about “American leadership” from a global perspective can feel hollow and abstract, even jingoistic.
Europeans don’t suffer that foolishness. They’ve seen fascism up close; they understand how a nationalistic ideologue can turn the world upside down; and for all their legitimate qualms with America, they understand far better than we do the impact America’s sheer weight has on the world stage.
No one in that room, in late 2016, could foresee the precise contours of how Trumpism would impact the world, but what has played out the three years since – rampant instability, the collapse of global coalitions, democracy in retreat, America on the side of the dictators – surely echoes the Nobel audience’s worst fears. Indeed it’s impossible to see those tears now, while the thunder of Patti Smith’s singular voice roars out a warning, and not be heartbroken at the extent to which everyone in that room sensed the hard rain to come.
To that end, as we’ve sunk deeper and deeper into darkness, my admiration for “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” has very much grown, precisely because of how well it captures the feeling of this American Tragedy.
On a line-by-line level, “Hard Rain” is a veritable feast of metaphors and imagery that speaks directly to our times. The line “where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,” for instance, rolls around in my brain three times a week, whenever I grapple with our fractured national psyche.
Meanwhile the coupled imagery of “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken” and “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” is a perfect summation of the mounting number of American atrocities – an endless march of school shootings, children in cages, families wrenched apart – that have become so commonplace, so much a part of the fabric of everyday life in these United States, that we’re rendered numb, and hopelessly mute.
And as, over these past few months, the realities of COVID-19, a looming economic depression, and an authoritarian regime that is, at best, indifferent to our suffering, have become more stark and undeniable, one of the passages in the breathless, gorgeously bleak but ultimately hopeful final verse “Hard Rain” has felt especially potent:
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
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Even more than its powerful parts, however, it’s the cumulative effect of “Hard Rain” – the way the deluge of apocalyptic imagery sweeps across your consciousness like a smoldering fire – that sticks with you.
The song, released just weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis, has long been associated with nuclear winter. Bob, with 35 years of hindsight, would write that he composed “Hard Rain” after spending too long staring at the news in the early 1960s, that he was inspired by a relentless culture of “black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.”
The critic Michael Gray, meanwhile, summed up “Hard Rain” like this: “We are besieged with images of dead and dying life, a kind of dynamic stasis, a perfect figurative medium for the vision at the brink.”
This turn of phrase – “the vision at the brink” – is to my mind a perfect encapsulation of the painful power of “Hard Rain.” It’s also a strikingly apt description of what my field of vision (and I’m sure yours, too) feels like lately.
It is increasingly hard to remember a day when we were not besieged by the news, by the stunning, constant stream of reminders of the rapid, purposeful decay of the America we once knew.
Our national identity – our morals, our ethic, our sense of honor, duty, decency, our capacity for kindness and generosity – is under sustained assault, every goddamn day under Trumpism, and has been for three years.
Meanwhile for the past few months, that assault on who we are has been exacerbated to devastating effect by real, existential fear for our most basic sense of safety and security.
America has never faced a President, or a ruling political apparatus, that is openly malevolent to the needs of the American people. But that’s where we are now: the President and his Republican enablers are sewing hatred and division, encouraging deadly violence, and quite literally lying to the American people about a deadly pandemic that is ravaging our country.
It is impossible, in that environment, to avoid feeling anxiousness, dread, the sensation of being pummeled by a hard, unrelenting rain, and it’s remarkable to me, listening to “Hard Rain” in times like these, how well Bob Dylan captured that feeling.
We are seeing “the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course”; the deluge of madness and fear we’re exposed to every day is “the vision at the brink.” That Bob Dylan, the great American Bard, captured the essence of that vision so well, almost 60 years ago is remarkable, and for me at least, a comfort.
Of course if you watched the Patti Smith performance above (and if you haven’t, please do!), for all the power of Bob Dylan’s poetry and songcraft, the headline is her powerful delivery … and the multiple times when, before an audience of kings and queens, Ms. Smith forgets the words.
You could write a dozen blog posts about Patti Smith, her distinctiveness and eminence as an artist, her activism, her complex feminism, her fascinating spirit and spirituality. But that, like so many regrettably un-tugged threads in these times, will have to wait for another day.
For now, I am awed and moved by how Ms. Smith handled this brief but pronounced blunder – both during the performance, before all those weeping dignitaries, and after – and how her wisdom and grace speaks directly to our increasingly unmoored society.
Some time after the Nobel performance, Patti Smith appeared on a Norwegian talk show (with Seth Meyers surreally on hand, politely listening), and gave a play-by-play of her thinking in that moment. That discussion begins at the 2:30 mark in this clip:
When I stumbled on this clip, I was struck, first, by Ms. Smith’s frankness about her humiliation in the moment, and the path she chose to overcome it.
“I just had to tell the truth,” she says. “If you tell people the truth, they’re very forgiving.”
This honesty – an ability to admit and acknowledge a shortcoming – paid off in the room that night, but it was even more gratifying the day after, when Ms. Smith and a room full of Nobel laureates shared a profound “kinship” at her moment of agonizing nakedness.
“They were so happy I was so flawed and had such a rough moment,” she says. “They told me they all do, too.”
I wrote earlier this week about how uncomfortable our society has become with negative emotion, and this basic premise applies equally to our immense discomfort with admitting fault, with appearing vulnerable, with acknowledging real challenges or failings.
This, of course, manifests in absurd and dangerous ways in our day-to-day social interactions. The ascendance of social media, the digitalization of our social lives, has created a new social order where we’re all Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch, screaming through strained grins about how goddamn happy and successful we are.
The result is a world where unhappiness, or discontent, feels like abject failure; where failure feels fatal; and where people increasingly suffer alone, rather than seeking comfort in the basic reality that, try as we might to pretend otherwise, we’re all prone to missteps, to failure, to uncertainty.
In that regard, we can all learn something from Patti Smith and those kings and queens at the post-Nobel soiree: just the simple act of acknowledging our failings gives others permission to share their own, and that can be a powerful antidote to the depression epidemic that was apparent in the U.S. long before Trumpism.
And I believe that same lesson can be applied to our engagement in the political discourse, which, not by accident, has become increasingly defined by certitude, and absolutes.
The most persistent (and exploitable) weakness of the Resistance – our tendency to turn against one another, to allow mild disagreements over nuances to fracture us – is driven by our own certitude and inflexibility. I suspect that that certitude comes from an intense fear that losing an argument, no matter how trivial or minute the difference of opinion, will somehow expose us as inauthentic, as inadequate in whatever political category – liberal, progressive, centrist – we place ourselves in.
This, as Patti Smith demonstrates so well, is hogwash. At a moment when the lines of our politics are blurrier, messier and scarier than ever – when the one thing we know for sure is the sheer magnitude of what we don’t know – we should let our uncertainty guide us, and unite us. No one has all the answers, no one knows what the hell to do, and acknowledging that to one another will absolutely make our Resistance stronger, and more enduring in the face of whatever comes next.
Of course, when it comes to Trumpism and the peril America finds herself in, there is an absolute right, and an absolute wrong. And its on that front that I draw the most strength from Bob Dylan’s extraordinary song, and Patti Smith’s fearless performance.
I can’t possibly put myself in Patti Smith’s head the night of Nobel ceremony, but every time I watch her performance, I am increasingly convinced that, towards the end of the song, she made a fateful and inspirational choice.
In the final verse of the song, there’s a line that, given the miscues at the outset, lent itself perfectly to a humble, self-deprecating joke:
And I’ll know my song well, before I start singing.
In an alternate reality, Patti Smith sings that line, gives the audience a wink, a shrug, a shake of the head and a sly smile, has a laugh at her own expense for having seemingly not known her song all that well at all. And to be clear, this would have been utterly delightful.
But Patti Smith took a different path. Watch the video again, and watch how when she sings that line, she leans into it, with utmost sincerity and conviction. She sings “and I’ll know my song well” like she’s reciting a sacred psalm, because it’s true: she fucking does know this song, inside and out.
Everything about that situation for Patti Smith – punk rocker performing in front of elegantly-dressed kings and queens – must have been unimaginably surreal, unimaginably alien. The movement of the earth beneath her threw Ms. Smith decidedly off kilter, but the song she’s sung a thousand times was her North Star, and it’s the song that helps her find her footing again.
I believe Patti Smith in that moment is a perfect metaphor for us, in our moment.
We are in the middle of an unthinkable maelstrom: a pandemic, an economic meltdown, and an increasingly authoritarian government, led by a madman. The earth is moving beneath us, in ways we’ve never experienced before; it is confusing, disorienting, scary as hell.
It will be painfully easy in the months (and God forbid years) ahead to get distracted, antagonized, to turn on one another. The goal of our President will be to shatter our equilibrium, to bury us in so much shit that we can’t keep track of what it is we’re fighting for.
The things Donald Trump is so desperate to rob us of – our morality, our decency, our values, our democracy – those things are our North Star.
And in those moments when the storm becomes too much, when we find ourselves doubting our eyes and ears, we can take a page from Patti Smith, find our bearings by leaning on those things that we know, and keep on singing.
One of the agonies of the past many months is that distracting my raging brain has become increasingly impossible – “Netflix and chill” became stale a month ago; the usual creature comforts just aren’t working like they used to.
But the exception for me – as has been true since I was 15 years old – has been Bob Dylan, who recently, at age 79, released a new album of original work called “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
Decidedly not Rebel Art, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is miles away from “Blowin’ In the Wind.” To my mind, the small rebellion of this album is in its audacity, in Bob’s willingness – at 79 years old – to take risks, to mix high- and low-, to walk right up to the darker, more brutal edges of human nature, and recognize the way they mingle effortlessly with our better angels (in this way, the new record echoes, obliquely, “Hard Rain”).
One of the early glowing reviews of the album called it “a vaccine against culture’s shrinking expectations and the subsequent sapping of spirit,” and in that regard, it has given me an enormous amount of succor the past few weeks.
I could write thousands upon thousands of words about the album, its high points, its flaws, where it fits in the Bob Dylan canon. I could write a book about Bob, three more after that, and still have things to say. Maybe someday I’ll get to. For now I’ll just say that “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is charming, endlessly interesting, musically fun and lyrically weird-as-hell. And even if Bob Dylan’s never been your cup of tea, I think it’s worth a listen.
And if you’ve got other examples of brilliant, current art that boldly bucks “culture’s shrinking expectations,” or thoughts on the new album, “Hard Rain,” or the ways Bob or others have anticipated this fraught and sad moment, please send me your comments below. I’d love to hear them.
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