Let me indulge in some hyperbole: When Moses spoke after he came down from the mountain, when Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, I don’t believe their audience could have been any more stunned than I or the other 3000 attendees were at Friday night’s Grammy week MusiCares charity event when Bob Dylan, this year’s person-of-the-year honoree, took to the podium and spoke for some 35 minutes, cogently, lyrically and, at moments, comically and poignantly. During Dylan’s speech the room of world-class schmoozers went dead silent; and afterwards you could almost hear them picking up their jaws from the floor. And like some latter-day Josephus, I can say: I was there, I saw it and heard it. And it was awesome. It actually blew my mind.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the speech, probably even read a transcript of it, as published in The LA Times, or Rolling Stone. That won’t stop me from telling you about it – it’s just one of those experiences that demands recounting.
Dylan’s speech was candid, heartfelt and deeply personal. He acknowledged those who supported and stood by him as a songwriter when it was not commercial to do so, such as John Hammond of Columbia Records, Lou Levy of Leeds Music and Artie Mogull of Witmark Music; and those who first popularized his songs, such as Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez, as well as the Turtles, The Byrds and Sonny Bono, who Dylan said made Pop versions of his songs that were like commercials for his music, and others like the Staples Singers, Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix who gave his songs greater recognition.
Dylan placed his songs in the context of the folk tradition in which he had immersed himself and where he learned his craft; and in the context of the producers, songwriters and performers whose admiration he cherished such as Doc Pomus, Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash and whose talent he distinguished from those who didn’t understand Dylan’s such as Leiber & Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun and Tom T. Hall ; Dylan responded to critics’ attacks on his voice and his performances over the years; and, finally, he spoke about the good work of MusiCares, talking of the care they offered rockabilly musician Billy Lee Riley when he got sick.
The speech turned out to be most memorable and surprising event of what will now be remembered as a legendary evening. Don Was, the evening’s musical director, played both electric and standup bass as part of a great backing band that included Buddy Miller on guitar and Greg Leisz on steel guitar, Benmott Tench on keyboards and drummer Kenny Aronoff, as well as some terriffic back-up singers.
Although, as is customary at MusicCares, the honoree Dylan did not perform, he was very involved in the selection of artists and song choice. Here’s who performed, what, when they originally performed it, and how they did:
• Beck opened with a decent pumped-up art rock version of “Leopard-skin pillbox hat” which he originally performed on the 2009 War Child charity album;
• Aaron Neville did a gorgeous version of “Shooting Star.”
• Alanis Morissette performed “Subterrannean Homesick Blues” much as she did at a 2005 UK Music Hall of Fame event, which to these ears was the night’s weakest performance.
• In one of the evening’s liveliest performance Los Lobos gave a rousing version of “A Night Like This” which they originally covered for Dylan’s film “Masked and Anonymous.”
• Willie Nelson, who could bring emotion and world-weary truth to a reading of the phonebook (if anyone read phonebooks anymore), gave a powerful reading of Senor (Tales of Power), despite some teleprompter snafus.
• Jackson Browne did a solid “Blind Willie McTell.”
• John Mellencamp did a Tom Waits-like version of Highway 61, much as it appeared on his “Trouble No More Live at Town Hall.”
• Jack White did a thunderous version of “One More Cup of Coffee” (which appears on the 1999 White Stripes first studio album) laying down a curtain of heavy funk;
• Tom Jones did a wonderfully soulful version of “What Good Am I” which also appears on his album “Praise and Blame.”
• Norah Jones performed “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” on piano, a track that appeared as the B side from her debut album;
• Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and the Tedeschi-Trucks band, blasted through “Million Miles Away.”
• One of the evening’s surprise standouts was John Doe’s take-us-to-church version of “Pressing On: which appears on “I’m Not There.”
• Crosby Stills & Nash performed “Girl from the North Country,” which they’ve been doing on their most recent tours.
• In what I and many others feel was the night’s best performance, Bonnie Raitt performed, “Standing in the Doorway” which appeared on her album “Slipstream.”
• Sheryl Crow did a good-not-great “Boots of Spanish Leather” (I rather wish she had performed Missisippi).
• Springsteen and Tom Morello did “Kocking Heaven’s Door” allowing Morello some soaring guitar solos.
• After Dylan spoke, Neil Young closed out the show with a solo acoustic “Blowing in the Wind” which he’s been performing on his 2014 tour.
So you can see my point: Had it only been the music, that would have been enough (Dayenu!). But then President Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, took the stage, a little smaller, a little hunched, but making a strong showing for any 90 year old.
President Carter gave a positive plug for “Shadows in the Dark” Dylan’s latest album of Sinatra-recorded standards and then explained that he had met Dylan when Carter was governor of Georgia. Dylan was then exploring Christianity, and Carter recounted that they stayed up late talking religion, politics and how advances in human rights are achieved.
“There’s no doubt,” President Carter said of Dylan, “that his words of peace and human rights are much more incisive and much more powerful and much more permanent than any president of the United States.” Great praise indeed. And if that’s all there was, that too would have been enough (again: Dayenu).
But then Bob Dylan took the stage, and he held a sheaf of papers in his hands and no one really knew what was coming: Based on a lifetime of cryptic public pronouncements and very limited on-stage chatter, no one would have been surprised if Dylan had accepted the award, then mumbled a few words, or even sung a few bars and made a hasty retreat. He might have even performed a few numbers with some of the stars. Instead he started in slow, saying,
“There are a few people we need to thank tonight for bringing about this grand event. Neil Portnow, Dana Tamarkin, Rob Light, Brian Greenbaum, Don Was. And I also want to thank President Carter for coming. It’s been a long night, and I don’t want to talk too much, but I’ll say a few things.”
And he did, for more than 35 minutes. If in his autobiographical book “Chronicles,” Dylan delivered some insight into his creative process and those who inspired or taught him in his journey to become an artist, then this MusiCares speech was a sequel of sorts, about becoming a songwriter, about acknowledging those who supported him and those who made it possible for his songs to be played.
For more than 50 years Dylan has jousted with journalists about his songs playfully, angrily, cynically, dismissively, and mysteriously. In his speech, Dylan placed his work in the context of a tradition that reaches back to Shakespeare’s times and spoke of his devotion to traditional music, traditional folk music, traditional rock & roll and traditional big bang swing music.
Dylan spoke of the years he immersed himself in folk music and how those songs were the bedrock on which he built his own songs, tracing connections between “John Henry” and “Blowing in the Wind”; Big Bill Broonzy’s “Keys to the Highway” and his own “Highway 61”; “Roll the cotton down” and “Maggie’s Farm”; Robert Johnson’s “Better Come in My Kitchen” and “Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”; “Come Ye Gather” songs and “The Times They are a Changin”; and “Deep Elum Blues” and “Desolation Row.” In Sum, Dylan said, “All these songs are connected…. I was just extending the line.” There was a humility in saying this, and at the same a willing demystification of Dylan’s art, — one that acknowledged the source as important even if Dylan’s classics transcended their roots to become iconic songs in their own right.
However, in aligning himself with a deep tradition which he embellished and transcended to create his own timeless canon for which he was being honored, Dylan was not without ego. He went off on a list of people who didn’t like what he did, and those who did. Reading it, Dylan comes off as a tad petty, harboring grudges in the face of all the recognition his work has received, but in person it was funny, smart-alecky and revealing.
Who’s in and who’s out? OUT: Leiber & Stoller (Yakety Yak and Hound Dog), Ahmet Ertegun, Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall – all critical of Dylan; IN: Doc Pomus(This Magic Moment” and “lonely Place”), Sam Phillips of Sun Records (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash), Buck Owens (“Together Again”) and Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
“Why me, Lord?” Dylan said (three times) about how critics have found fault with his singing all throughout his career. Critics, Dylan, had opined that: “I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog….can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song… No Vocal range… slur my words, no diction.. mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable…” It’s true that if you’ve seen Dylan in concert in the last decade, you might have heard this said too, or even thought it. But Dylan matched each of these accusations with a performer in whom critics found this fault to be a strength, be it Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Leonard Cohen or Muddy Waters.
In one of his funnier lines, Dylan started to talk about “a popular soul-singing sister” who sang the national anthem and “sang every note that existed and some that don’t exist.” Yet he was the one being criticized for mangling a song. At this point, I wondered if the speech was about to go off the rails. Also, although Dylan delivered the speech leaning on one arm, his feet seemed to splay out behind him, almost like a ballet dancer at the barre and I feared that his feet were going to slide out from under him. But, as usua,l to doubt Dylan is a fool’s errand.
Here’s what Dylan said next: “Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.”
In Dylan’s reckoning, songwriters like Tom T. Hall fake trying to connect with the average man, while Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash told it true. Similarly Dylan set his just released album of Sinatra standards apart from those by Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr, Rod Stewart, Linda Rondstadt, and Paul McCartney, who did so with a full orchestra in imitation of what was, rather than performing the songs in a true manner. Dylan also explained how Rock N’ Roll is part blues, which is itself derived from “Arabian violins and Strauss waltzes,” and hillbilly music that needs to be played with “the right kind of rhythm.” Dylan said: “You can fake it, but you can’’t make it.”
Dylan shared that he was considering making a gospel album with the Blackwood Brothers, which he said might surprise some people but that it shouldn’t. ”I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. “ Dylan was making the point that in all the various albums he made whether folk, rock, Texas swing, Christmas Songs, Sinatra covers, his ambition was always the same, to perform them in a way that is true.
Dylan then spoke with great affection for the late Billy Lee Riley (most well-known for “Red Hot”), a rockabilly pioneer eclipsed by Jerry Lee Lewis, whose conversation and performances Dylan enjoyed and who MusiCares aided when Riley became sick. MusiCares, Dylan payed Riley’s mortgage and health bills for six years and were able to make “his life comfortable, tolerable to the end.”
“That is something that can’t be repaid.” Dylan said, “Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.” And then Dylan said, “I’m going to get out of here now. I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it. I probably left out a lot of people and said too much about some. But that’s OK. Like the spiritual song, ‘I’m still just crossing over Jordan too.’ Let’s hope we meet again. Sometime. And we will, if, like Hank Williams says, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” And just like that, he was gone.
The room collectively pulled its jaw up off the floor, stood and applauded, and then spent the little of the night that was left, dazed. MusiCares raised $7 Million from that night alone.
HBO is planning on airing the concert as a special (no date has been announced). I hope they don’t cut Dylan’s speech. However, even if they do show the speech in its entirety, what I hope comes through is what we, lucky enough to be in the room, experienced: A sermon about tradition, about a gift not ignored, about being grateful to those who believed in you, and gave support and succor along the way, about making art that is not fake, and that remains true even as it is ever changing and that, in its own way, tells a truth – and about standing up for those organizations that care for others in a meaningful way.
Although Dylan was honoree, the evening provided no way beyond the performances to thank Dylan himself. What comes to mind, now almost a week later are lines Aaron Neville had sung earlier in the evening:
“Seen a shooting star tonight slip away
Tomorrow will be another day
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight