My worst fear of public speaking or of any performance for that matter is to forget a memorized line or my place on a page when on stage in front of a large, significant audience. My anxiety over “whiting out”, the term used in the acting profession for this type of terrifying moment of fluster, often prevents me from taking the podium unless absolutely necessary. And when I do, and my presentation goes well, I breathe a big sigh of relief that I didn’t humiliate myself when in the spotlight.
Now, moving forward, or backward, to Patti Smith – the super iconic, world renowned, award-winning poet, writer, author, musician and singer dubbed the Godmother of Punk Rock. I was a fan of hers back in the 1970s. In 1978, her hit song, “Because the Night”, became my sing-along earworm. When she performed in New York clubs during that era, posters of “The Patti Smith Group” were glued to lampposts all over the city. The A-list “sub-culture” artists she hung out with such as Robert Mapplethorpe, John Cale, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, made these clubs landmarks. Patti Smith was a superstar then and after a long hiatus during which time she married and had children, she resumed her writing and singing career when her husband unexpectedly had a heart attack and died. Her light shone again with best-selling books of her poetry and tales about her non-conventional life, and her old recordings were re-released.
And when I learned that she was the designated stand-in to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Bob Dylan, I was thrilled to get a Facebook message from my brother-in-law with the YouTube video of her singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Very little about her appearance had changed. She still wore a white man-tailored shirt with a man’s black tie, although her face now was visibly older and her un-styled, uncombed stringy black hair had turned grungy gray. “Good for her,” I thought, with admiration. She remained true to herself and did not give a damn about impressing the kings and queens and crowned princes and princesses sitting in the first few rows of the enormous concert hall in Stockholm Sweden.
Backed by a full string orchestra, I was spellbound when she took center stage and began to sing the long, complicated song with the same lilting, twangy nuances as Bob Dylan. Then, I gasped and held my breath when during the second stanza Patti Smith whited out. The orchestra stopped playing and the room went silent. After a torturous few seconds that must have felt like hours to Patti, she softly apologized to the Royal group and the other dignitaries in the packed house, saying she was nervous. Then, composed herself and to a loud round of supportive applause, she quickly got back into her image and with another momentary lapse during which time I held my breath again, she finished her beautiful performance with passion and grace.
All I could think was, “WOW. What a lesson about messing up on stage.” Here she just experienced my very worst fear and as a result, I and apparently everyone else appreciated her spirit and talent all the more. Her human vulnerability earned her YouTube likes, loves and shares that went viral in a way that a perfect performance never would have.