"And if my thought dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine"
"It's Alright, Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)"
What kind of crazy fucked up world do we live in where Bob Dylan comes back from the dead and delivers the paramount rock and roll experience of the twenty first century?
That's right, MusiCares is a clusterfuck nonpareil. The number one networking dinner of the year. Not only is it peopled by wannabes and no-name Recording Academy members, the movers and shakers all show up, the conversation is scintillating and informative, and then you retire to the ballroom where household names go through the motions, singing songs via Teleprompter.
Now the best stuff I saw in the auction room were the photos donated by Richard Lewis. That's right, the comedian. He had one from the A.R.M.S. concert with every legend known to man, from Jeff Beck to Joe Cocker to Jimmy Page to Eric Clapton to Ronnie Lane, the inspiration for the show. Even more fascinating was the picture of Tim Hardin, before he was grizzled by heroin addiction, it was almost a completely different man.
And during the speeches I conversed with my table neighbors, nothing relevant or interesting was being said.
And then came the performances.
Now first I have to mention the crack band. Using all their chops and rehearsal to operate on a level so high, I don't think it can be topped. Don Was the bandmaster. And Kenny Aronoff pounded the skins. Heartbreaker extraordinaire, Benmont Tench, tickled the keys. The legend only insiders know, Buddy Miller, picked the strings. And Greg Leisz was on pedal steel, this guy deserves to be more well-known.
Anyway, all the stars were good, but I can't say there were many memorable performances. The song choices were confounding. A track from "Saved"? Another from "Oh Mercy"? Even the most dedicated Dylanologist would not only be disappointed, but would struggle to know the lyrics of these obscurities.
I figured John Mellencamp was gonna amp it up with a ripping version of "Highway 61," but he turned it into a dirge.
And Tom Jones was fluid, but he never put the pedal to the metal, he usually blows us away, here he just barely brought the kettle to a boil.
Beck was all one note, there were no dynamics.
Jackson Browne was really good on an endless number from the early catalog that evidenced magic, but didn't grab you by the gut and twist you.
Unlike Bonnie Raitt.
Bonnie Raitt, the Grammy darling, came back over the hill to reclaim her title as the sassiest mama with the best interpretive skills, all the while being a soulful slide player who can hold her own with the boys. She took the tertiary track "Standing In The Doorway" and not only made it her own, far eclipsing Dylan's original, but delivered the best musical performance of the night. It was like being jetted back to 1992. Or 1972. As if no time had passed. There were a few lines in her face, but Bonnie was every bit as good. Really, if you're a music lover, you would have smiled and then jumped to your feet, as we all did.
The second best performance, by a hair? Willie Nelson's rendition of "Senor."
Talk about a professional… Willie couldn't read the Teleprompter at the back of the room. And the one on stage wasn't working. So he and the band vamped endlessly until the glitch was rectified. Minutes. Talk about draining energy from the performance… But then Willie sang so beautifully, so soulfully, picked so amazingly, that he converted everyone on the fence into a fan. This guy is a deserved legend. He's heads above everybody else. He wrung meaning out of that song that we didn't know was there.
Jack White earned his place in the movie "It Might Get Loud." He wailed.
And the Boss did a solid rendition of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," and whipped out some leads to demonstrate that he's not about to hang up his rock and roll shoes.
And then came Mr. Z.
Well, first we had Neil Portnow's monotonic introduction. What a juxtaposition, a legend and an administrator.
But credit Mr. Portnow for knowing it was not his night, that he was not up to the task, for he relinquished the mic to Jimmy Carter.
That's right, our 90 year old ex-President who was put into office by the Allman Brothers. And I didn't believe half of what he said, but then he got truthful, you could feel the connection, and out came Zimmy.
Now this is usually the lamest moment of the show. When the winner holds the trophy, thanks the usual suspects and says nothing meaningful.
But not the poet laureate from Hibbing.
Bob talked in that insane voice he's developed, like his skin is a different color and he was brought up in the holler. And he made some perfunctory remarks. And then he told us he was gonna read.
Oh god, he's afraid of making a mistake, he can't do it off the cuff, get ready to be bored.
And all night we were wondering if Bob would perform. Most people do, but when Neil Young was honored he did not. And really, I don't want to see Bob mangle his old material, but maybe on this occasion he'll hearken back to the originals.
It was better than that. Bob didn't play a note, but he delivered a speech that dropped jaws and had you tingling, not believing you were there in attendance.
You remember that experience, don't you? When the gigs weren't productions matched to clicks and if you didn't go to the show you didn't know, there was no MTV, never mind YouTube? When you went because you never knew what would happen?
Well, something happened last night.
And what happened was that Bob Dylan revealed he's been listening all the while, he knows what we've been saying about him, he's got an opinion about it, and unlike everybody else in this sold-out business he's not afraid to step on toes, he's not afraid to offend.
It had a somewhat historical structure. These were not notes, Bob had written an essay, nearly a book, it took him half an hour to deliver it, turning the printed pages all the while. And he didn't go all the way back to Minnesota, then again, there was a reference to Highway 61, but he did start with John Hammond, giving the man props for signing him, alluding to the luck he was the beneficiary of that no one likes to talk about.
It's more than luck, it's personality and drive and cunning and making opportunities others cannot see, never mind take advantage of. But there's always luck.
And from there to his initial publisher Lou Levy, and Joan Baez, who he praised to high heaven, all the way to Jimi Hendrix on up to today.
Lou said Bob was ahead of the game, and if he was lucky the audience would catch up with him in three to five years.
Bob didn't want to write novelty tracks like Leiber and Stoller, whom he excoriated. Bob was only interested in the truth, which he got from folk songs, which he knew by heart and played incessantly.
Yes, Bob told us where his songs came from. Made the connection from the past to the present. It was positively mind-blowing, the guy who obfuscates for a living is giving us the god's honest truth in a way no one ever does. It's like the fathers of our country telling us what's behind the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the only difference being Dylan is still alive.
You see Dylan impacted the culture, we're just pawns in his game. The big story this week was the "Billboard 100," the executives who run this enterprise. That's how far we've come, we lionize the rip-off businessmen who'll soon be forgotten. Even David Geffen's almost been forgotten.
But Bob Dylan won't be. Great artists cobble together something new from the past and inspire those who come after. Bob Dylan is a great artist.
And what a perspective!
He talked about his voice and the criticism of it. Wondered why he was singled out and Leonard Cohen was not. Why everybody else can do a covers album and get away with it but the critics put him through the wringer.
The truth is Bob Dylan is different from the rest. We hold him to a higher standard. Because he's at the pinnacle, and we need to believe in him.
But Dylan's an elusive sort. Bobbing and weaving like a boxer. Confounding expectations.
That was a highlight, when Dylan said this was not a job description, this is not what he does, he's just following his own muse in search of the truth.
And I could recite more verbiage but if you're interested in the details you can read excerpts online.
But ultimately it was more than the content. It was the fact that Bob Dylan trail blazed again. That he did confound our expectations. That he pushed an envelope we could not even see.
And we were there. When he went on not worrying what we thought, not worrying about losing us, because that's what great artists do, follow their own path and not worry about pandering to the masses.
But now pandering rules the business. And those who are unique don't realize that Bob Dylan could get away with his unique voice because he was the best lyricist of all time. Are you? I don't think so.
And Bob Dylan is still demanding our attention. Who else can we say that of?
And I won't say everything he does is good. But you've got to respect the man for trying, for continually being born instead of dying.
So there you have it. This is what got us to go to the shows way back when. Because a friend went and couldn't stop testifying about what he'd experienced.
Last night I experienced the best speech by a rock musician ever.
And the honor is bogus, but all awards are. That was another of Dylan's targets, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. An empty institution where the second-rate are members and the genuine article is excluded. That's right, Billy Lee Riley might have only had one hit, "Red Hot," but that track got inside Dylan in such a way as to not only inspire, but never be forgotten.
You remember inspiration, don't you?
You remember the indelible experience, don't you?
Or are you just about the money, and if someone's got it they're above criticism?
If so, I feel sorry for you. Because you wouldn't have gotten Bob Dylan's speech last night, you wouldn't have understood where he was coming from, and you wouldn't have been made to believe that the future is still in front of us as opposed to being in the rearview mirror, and you wouldn't know that art trumps money every minute of the day, every hour of the week, and that without Bob Dylan our lives would be so much emptier.
So you can pledge fealty to false idols.
But the empty icons won't keep you warm at night.
Grammy weekend is already over. Bob Dylan took home all the trophies, made the entire ceremony look small and he never sang a note.
That's an artist.