It was a big moment in a life that has had a lot of them. Patti Smith performed a Bob Dylan song at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm last night, in honor of the man born Robert Zimmerman, who was not there to accept his award for literature himself. It was a wonderful choice by the Nobel committee: Smith teethed on Dylan’s music, and they have performed together in the past. (I saw them share a bill and a mike at the Beacon Theater in New York many years ago; she had wonder in her face as she looked at her hero next to her.) Like Bob, Patti is not exactly a singer in the bel canto tradition: She has a rough voice, prone to flat tones . But unlike him, she can belt with a strong, powerful vibrato. Her rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” silenced the theater full of men in tuxes and women in gowns.
And then, she forgot the words. She stumbled, stumbled again, then stopped the guitar accompaniment, apologized, and asked if she could start over. “I apologize. Sorry, I’m so nervous,” she said smiling the tight smile of someone mortified to the point of tears, her cheeks crimson — a human moment in a night of buttoned-up formality. Later, it happened again. It was a stumble big enough to make online headlines. I hope, in the video below, people play beyond the gaffes and listen to the words of this timely and timeless protest song by one great writer, sung by another, blessedly fallible one.
Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil have made history and song together for more than a half century. In the mid-’60s, they fomented the Tropicalia revolution in their native Brazil. They were imprisoned and exiled for their troubles, an experience documented in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Veloso’s memoir, one of the best and most important music autobiographies you’ll ever read.
The two elder statesmen have reunited for a tour, which brought them to the cavernous Microsoft Theater in LA last night. It was just the two of them and their acoustic guitars on the mammoth stage — two graying septuagenarians — with sometimes the audience joining along. Veloso’s voice in particular gets more hauntingly beautiful every time I see him; he may now be my favorite artist of all time (sorry Bruce). Having been a “soft Brazilian singer” (to borrow a phrase from one of his songs) — albeit one fond of static disruptions and eruptions — his whole life, he hasn’t blown out his cords one bit. If anything, they’ve become more supple, precisely tuned instruments. Gil, the former culture minister, sounds a bit raspier, but when he took the high notes and Caetano the low, the paired melodies took my breath away.
It made me think of a comment Carrie Brownstein had made earlier that day, in her on-stage conversation with LA Times critic Lorraine Ali, at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, about how she and Corin Tucker offer two narratives instead of the usual one as the front people of Sleater-Kinney. Veloso’s and Gil’s narratives have long entwined in a dialogue about race, colonialism, pop culture, and politics. Thinking of a way to explain to others the importance of the show, I thought it’s like seeing Dylan and Marley on stage together — if Dylan could carry a tune. These men are giants, who sing mostly in Portuguese, but also in Spanish and English. And then, sure enough, they closed with Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Maybe I was reading into it, but was the refrain — “Every little thing’s going to be all right” — a message to the many Brazilians in the audience, as their country goes through perhaps the most intense political and economic tumult since the 1960s? The leftist regime that Gil was once a part of is under investigation and attack, in a country whose cultural icons still remember how it felt to be locked up by a military dictatorship.
But that was a subtext in an evening that was all about two of the most beautiful voices you might never hear together again, singing a half-century’s worth of songs of freedom.
Some of the great shots by the guy who told me that of all the stars he’s photographed, Bob Dylan, Robert DeNiro, and Joan Jett were the ones who had “something special.”
via Brad Elterman epic photographs of rock n’ roll History « Beautiful/Decay Artist & Design.