This week, in Stockholm, Sweden, Patti Smith stood in for absent Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. She performed his 1960s anthem, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” to a packed concert hall audience.
Here are some thoughts about what was transmitted to me as I watched and listened to this extraordinary person as she made an even more extraordinary communication.
If you had a very important, crucial message to put out, what would be the best way to transmit it?
To my way of thinking, the best way to do this would be by an indirect route. To put the message out in such a way that - on the surface - it didn’t appear as a message at all.
Take the communication implicit in Patti Smith’s appearance in Stockholm as an example.
The performer: a member of one of the world’s most oppressed and under-threat groups, i.e. women, and someone with close ties to the LGBT community.
The song: an apocalyptic (yet compassionate) vision of times to come, “Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten / Where black is the colour, where none is the number.” But in the midst of this scenario, the poet/troubadour walks "to the depths of the deepest dark forest” “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty / Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.” And the troubadour’s job: to reflect the truth “so that all souls can see it,” but even more importantly, to have experienced the truth in a personal way her or himself, to “know my song well before I start singin’."
The way I see it, if we ever needed a roadmap through these times, there it is. There is the message from the seer: the best that he could do under the circumstances.
Bob Dylan's ultimate status for me is that of Truthbearer, at a time when truth itself is under murderous assault. That’s where he stands within my very small pantheon of heroes.
But the few people I have identified as heroes are not just people I observe from a distance, or read about, or admire. They are watchfires at the boundary of my consciousnessThey are lighthouses upon stormy seas. They are there to be heeded and used, even imitated up to a point - until such time as I can encode the message into myself, into my work, and can then pass it along to others.
But for now: I’m going to keep hammering, and chiseling, and digging. I’m going to get to know my song well, so that it cannot be shaken, no matter what.
And I’m going to sing it wherever I can, and as often as I can.
The prophet can point out the road. But it is up to me to put on my own thirsty boots, and to walk it.