TEARS fell and the applause thundered as Patti Smith completed her emotionally-drenched, eight-minute-long rendition of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
The revered rock laureate smiled gently and mouthed her thanks to a black-tie audience crowned with European royalty who were celebrating the recipients of last year’s Nobel prizes in December.
Even with all the love and respect being directed Smith’s way, she was disappointed by her sudden stumble at the start of the second verse of Bob Dylan’s song.
As she has explained, she didn’t forget the words but her nerves stopped them from reaching her mouth.
“I think it was because it was for Bob Dylan. It was a Nobel prize. I was also sitting with the orchestra, which I had never had to do before, and I think I was hit by a wave of emotions I have never navigated before,” she says from her writing room in her New York apartment.
“Actors call it a white-out, you know the lines but all of a sudden everything goes blank. Like a child, I wanted to run away but I pulled myself together. One thing I have always thought is it is important to tell people what you are feeling.
“I am very comfortable saying I f … ed this up or I don’t want to do this song because it feels phony tonight. I have no qualms talking to people from the stage, they are my responsibility.
“But I was there as a guest and I wanted to do my very best. Even the King Of Sweden looked pleased at the end, I had the King Of Sweden on my side!”
Yet Smith still felt humiliated despite her graceful recovery after stopping the orchestra, just as Adele would do two months later at the Grammy Awards.
A couple of months later, the 70-year-old punk rocker, poet and author still feels the pinch of that moment yet not a day goes by when someone doesn’t stop her on the street, from tourist to kindergarten teacher, and thank her for “f … ing it up”.
Their gratitude isn’t rooted in hero worship. Her perseverance and eventual triumph was an underdog’s story.
There is a hint of a laugh in her voice as she recalls being mobbed by a squad of Nobel prize-winning scientists in the lobby of her Stockholm hotel.
“They told me how much it meant to them because they all feel like that, they all have those moments,” she says.
“I learned a huge lesson from this. There are certain things we go through that aren’t for us. They are to serve people.
“I didn’t serve the people exactly how I was hoping to, with a flawless, beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s great song.
“But I wound up as some little lesson in humility and prevailing and it important people know they can make big mistakes and they will prevail.”
Just a few weeks after the Stockholm performance, Smith turned 70 on New Year’s Eve. She celebrated by performing with her children Jackson and Jesse at the Riviera Theatre in the city of her birth, Chicago. REM frontman Michael Stipe surprised her on stage with a cake and led the crowd in a resounding Happy Birthday.
Her age factors in her decision to call her upcoming tour of Australia her last. Her doctor has advised her to keep air travel to short distances because of a lifetime of chronic bronchial problems.
“I am making priorities in my life and I want to devote most of my time to writing and some performing and my family. I am very healthy, I have only one health issue and that is asthma,” she says.
“Believe me, I am tough but the doctor said no long flights over four hours.”
For her final shows, including two headlining appearances at Bluesfest in Byron Bay and theatre concerts in Sydney and Melbourne, Smith is revisiting her seminal debut album Horses.
Released in 1975, the album announced the arrival of the Godmother of Punk, who was already a published poet.
A year after the world was beset by a rollcall of unexpected deaths from David Bowie and Leonard Cohen to Prince and George Michael, there is a bittersweetness to Smith’s reprisal of a record which marked her coming to life as a rock artist.
Horses was written as a requiem to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and “the people we lost”.
Smith can’t help but see the ghosts of all those she has loved and lost when she and band mates perform an album long regarded as one of the greatest records to emerge from the New York punk rock nursery.
“When I wrote it, part of it was a requiem to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and the people we lost then,” she says.
“Now when we perform it, the requiem includes my brother, my husband, Lou Reed, The Ramones, so many people we knew, people we played with, our good friends.
“So I find when I am doing these songs that I am thinking of the whole world of these people and include them in my consciousness. And also I am asking the (audience) to include the people they have lost in their consciousness.
“It is a celebration of life but yes, it absolutely salutes the dead.”
For many who adore Smith, who has become a best-selling author with her compelling memoirs Just Kids and M Train, the enduring image of this artistic yet humble giant of music and letters is the Robert Mapplethorpe photo adoring the Horses cover.
It is an era-defining image taken by the man she loved and who co-starred through so much of Just Kids.
That book captured their early years when Smith was writing and exploring rock music while and Mapplethorpe pursuing his photography and coming to terms with his sexuality, even as they were lovers.
Smith not only remembers the circumstances of the shoot, but more than 40 years later, every moment of it from the way his hand trembled slightly when he was excited to his gentle look as he gave her instructions. Her mood was frustration and agitation; she was running out of time to cut her hair for a gig that night at legendary New York club CBGB.
The album cover photo was the eighth frame of 12 shots on the roll.
“Whenever I see that photo, I just see Robert and the moments between us. Every frame is a different moment. He had no assistant, no fancy equipment, we were alone in the room,” she says, casting the scene.
“I had a black jacket on and he asked me to take the jacket off. He liked the white of my shirt. I took it off and threw it over my shoulder, and looked defiant because I didn’t want to take my jacket off.
“He took the shot and said ‘I have it.’ I asked him how did he know. We had such alchemy, such chemistry between us, we just knew what to do.”
Now her daughter Jesse teases her whenever they are going through old pictures; there is a thread which connects every single one of them to that moment when the Horses cover was captured.
“My daughter always laughs when she sees old pictures of me,” Smith says, also laughing.
“Because I am wearing the same clothes and the same haircut.”
Patti Smith and her band perform at State Theatre on April 9-11, Bluesfest, Byron Bay on April 13 and 14 and in Melbourne at Hamer Hall on April 16 and 17, State Theatre on April 19 and Festival Hall on April 20.