Patti Smith and Bob Dylan have known each other since 1975 and you could say their friendship has transcended ordinary life and entered the realm of greatness. Greatness in its original sense and not as a cliché is always complex and, as we know, the complex is often reduced, ridiculed and even vilified in a world driven by capital, post-truth and social media noise. The complex is always the enemy of ignorance.
Patti Smith has just given incredible concerts in Spain, reminding us that her importance for rock’n’roll is also greater than what we are used to seeing on stage. These were concerts in which she performed songs written by Dylan, such as the simple but moving One morning too many, composed just after his arrival in New York in the early sixties. That Bob Dylan, who left everything in Minnesota to meet an ailing Woody Guthrie and start his career as a musician in Greenwich Village, was the example followed by a very young Patti Smith when she too gave up – in her case at New Jersey – for a life in Greenwich Village.
Bob and Patti both lived for music and dedicated their lives to it. They pursued with all their heart what they believed in, moving away from the territory inhabited by their family and their childhood friends, in short, from society in general. They pursued their dream and found themselves in the territory of art. And they have been great ambassadors for this shrinking art and space in this current age: a time when culture and art are becoming less and less relevant and damaged by all kinds of interests, social mechanisms and bad thoughts.
Patti and Bob still inhabit our world, even though they seem to belong to another. As Dylan admitted in his last interview, published in The New York Times to promote his 2020 album Rough and rowdy ways, he is aware that his world is “obsolete”. Not only are he and Patti’s worlds obsolete, but what they represent is of little relevance anymore, namely a commitment to the real art of music – a craft that, in its essence, has more to do with the value of the song itself than with the festival’s giant screens and pyrotechnics. Their friendship therefore also represents something more transcendental than most of us can grasp.
They met in 1975 when Dylan went backstage to see Patti after a gig at The Bitter End club in New York. She was a 29-year-old poet involved in rock ‘n’ roll and a sensation in the early punk era; he was a 34-year-old counterculture icon. As Patti has repeatedly recalled, it was an unfortunate encounter. An elusive character who was hard to meet at any given event, Bob walked into Patti’s dressing room and asked, “Are there any poets around here?” To which she replied: “I hate poetry!” Several decades later, Patti herself admitted that she behaves like a high school teenager who pretends not to be interested when a boy she likes approaches.
Patti also said that Dylan in the flesh can never be separated from Dylan the Legend, an observation shared by other musicians. From a place of self-awareness and arrogance, person and legend merge into a being whose gestures and silences possess a strange and definitive power. Patti fell in love. That night, Bob left quickly but saw the fun side. A few days later, the two were photographed laughing at a private party during which she even teased him to get out of the way of the photographer. The camera captured a moment of spontaneity and authenticity.
Whatever happened between them then led to mutual admiration. It’s hard to be friends with Bob Dylan, who is an elusive character, even with those closest to him, but Patti Smith succeeded. During those early years of their friendship, Patti said she used to meet Dylan for walks through New York during which they chatted about all sorts of things. And one thing you learn early in life, unless you’re an orangutan, is that walking around and chatting creates a closer emotional bond than sex. Patti and Bob bonded a lot.
In 1994, Patti lost her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, a former member of the group MC5. Shortly after, her brother died, catapulting Patti into a depression. Recall that Patti had given up songwriting and much of her artistic life in the 1980s and 1990s to devote herself to her family life with Fred and their two children. But even before the deaths of Fred and her brother, she had been gravely affected by the death of her other great love, Robert Mapplethorpe, in 1989. Mapplethorpe had been her lover, companion, friend and confidant in those early years in New York. , while she herself recounts it in just childrena book that took him 10 years to write.
In the midst of her depression, Patti received a call from Bob. He wanted her to perform at a series of concerts in the United States. I like to reminisce about this story with my friend Rafa Cervera, great music critic and admirer of Patti Smith, who himself wrote about this extraordinary relationship between the two rock’n’roll legends. As Patti noted, Bob was the only one who could convince her to come back on stage. In 1995, she accompanies Bob for seven nights and, each of these nights, she sings one of his songs, dark eyes, with these lines: “I live in another world where life and death are memorized… But I feel nothing for their game where the beauty goes unnoticed. Patti not only returned to the stage, she returned to life.
She began to compose and especially to write collections of poetry, memoirs and essays. In short, she made a big comeback. And Bob continued his endless tour, his outdated records and his mysterious persona.
In 2016, Bob Dylan shocked the literary world by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Writers of all kinds were angry, offended that the most coveted literature prize went to a singer-songwriter. It was a weird and fun time, especially when it became clear that the Nobel Committee, that mothball entity that got mired in sex scandals, didn’t know the essence of the laureate: Bob Dylan didn’t was not an aspiring writer to win awards. But how could the Swedish Academy know this when it was looking for publicity?
It seems Dylan came into the world to change it with his lyrics – and perhaps he achieved more than the vast majority of book writers. In 2016, when he became a Nobel laureate, little changed in his behavior. He didn’t do anything that could have been expected of him. He just went about his business, even the things he cared about, and so he asked Patti Smith to be the one to sing for him at the awards show. A faux pas? Not for her. This gesture honored the code that Patti and Bob shared.
Patti sang A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, one of the first compositions she learned as a teenager from Dylan, and she was overwhelmed with emotion. She stumbled over the words and had to stop the song and start over. Cynics thought it was staged, but many others simply saw a nervous, mature woman in it. Many others have understood nothing at all while perhaps a handful of fools have seen the ultimate beauty of a unique friendship, and the ultimate beauty of the art of music – the art of a tradition shared oral.
In a article in the new yorkerPatti Smith recalled what happened: “I had to stop and ask for forgiveness and then try again in this state and I sang with all my being, but still stumbling. I didn’t have not forgotten that the narrative of the song begins with the words “I have stumbled along twelve misty mountains” and ends with the phrase “And I shall know my song well before I begin to sing”. I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived in the world of lyrics.
If Dylan’s literature, and therefore his music – and even the man’s iconic status – meant anything, it was perfectly represented in Patti Smith. Those nerves and heartbreaking song had more impact than the best of speeches. I imagine this is hard to understand for writers who regard language academies as more sacred than what, say, you might find in a village choir clapping and singing traditional songs.
Patti and Bob’s friendship continues to this day, but our modern world has nothing to do with them and what they stand for. The world we inhabit is hostile and moving too fast. It’s a world where poetry is tragically lacking while advertising campaigns pass for beauty. It’s the same world that Patti Smith and Bob Dylan confronted with their songs – two kindred spirits in the service of art, which is something bigger than the reality we are currently persuaded to live.