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Bob Dylan’s Whole Life in 30 Minutes
In a rambling, comprehensive and surprisingly biting speech, Bob Dylan gave a half-hour speech of a lifetime on Friday. Here’s what he had to say.
Last Friday night, in a remarkable speech that ran more than 30 minutes and was the talk of the industry over Grammy weekend, music legend Bob Dylan offered deeply personal thanks to a career-spanning chorus of friends and fellow musicians, colorfully smacked down a few others along the way, eviscerated decades of music critics’ complaints about his voice and his enigmatic nature, and stunned many by revealing the musical inspirations behind some of his most well-known songs.
In a rambling ode that crisscrossed a century of American music, Dylan delighted an audience of 3,000 musicians and industry veterans gathered in Los Angeles to honor him as Musicares’ 2015 Person of the Year. Musicares is the non-profit arm of the Grammys that aids impoverished musicians during times of financial and medical crisis.
The speech capped a star-studded musical tribute to Dylan, 73, by a wide variety of artists whom he handpicked to interpret his songs. The show, which was not broadcast, reportedly included performances by Beck (“Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”); Jackson Browne (“Blind Willie McTell”); Bruce Springsteen (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door”); Neil Young (“Blowin’ In the Wind”); Jack White (“One More Cup of Coffee”); Crosby, Stills and Nash (“Girl From the North Country”); Tom Jones (“What Good Am I?”); Willie Nelson (“Senor”) and Los Lobos (“On a Night Like This”). This piece is based on a transcript of the speech published by Rolling Stone.
The diversity of the lineup proved to highlight a key theme in Dylan’s subsequent speech, in which he offered surprisingly tender thanks to Peter, Paul and Mary, who turned “Blowin’ In the Wind” into a hit song and—Dylan explained—taught him a lot about the mutability of a song, and how reinterpretation can open up myriad new possibilities in a song.
“[I] have to mention some of the early artists, who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked,” Dylan told the audience. “Just something that they felt was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to—or with—a better group,” he said.
“They took a song of mine that… was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not that way that I would have done it,” Dylan intoned in his inimitable style. “They straightened it out.”
The artist also offered a surprisingly sweet appreciation for other sugary 1960s pop groups like The Turtles, The Byrds and Sonny & Cher, who also turned early Dylan songs into top pop hits. He poked fun at both the bands and himself.
“Their versions of the songs were like commercials,” he explained, to laughter in the audience. “But I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good, too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.”
In 2004, Dylan baffled virtually everyone when he appeared in a “Victoria’s Secret” television commercial with angel Adriana Lima and others, allowing the lingerie company to license his song “Love Sick.” The unexpected move prompted now-familiar outrage at Dylan for “selling out,” with one writer ruefully noting that “forty years ago, [Dylan’s] motto was ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ Today, it’s ‘stretch-lined demi-bra with lace.’”
After thanking his earliest interpreters, Dylan firmly placed his own career within a contrasting lineage of American music. It all grew out of the folk songwriting tradition, Dylan said, and his work was embodied by the songs of his true heroes. There was Sun Studios’ legendary sound man Sam Phillips, he said, who discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. He called Nina Simone an “overwhelming artist” who “validated everything I was about” when she recorded his songs. He wished the Staples Singers had done the same. He cited Joan Baez as “a woman of devastating honesty” and Johnny Cash as “a hero of mine.”
Dylan recounted the famous March 1964 letter to the editor that Cash, already a country legend at 32, wrote to Sing Out! magazine, a highly-influential folk magazine which had published a complaint-filled “open letter” to Dylan. Sing Out! was, to 1960s folk purists, roughly what the New Yorker is to many self-styled urban intellectuals. The magazine’s broadside accused Dylan, 23, of going Hollywood and abandoning his roots in strictly traditional folk music.
Cash, who had never met Dylan at that point, penned a powerful defense of the young artist that concluded, memorably, with “SHUT UP and let him sing!”
Years later, in a full-page ad in a 1998 Billboard magazine, Cash and producer Rick Rubin would again slam the Nashville establishment scene, which had similarly shunned the country legend late in his career.
Dylan spoke reverently of Cash in his speech on Friday night, infusing his tribute with prose that evoked the Bible, the book that had proven perhaps most precious to both men throughout their careers.
“Johnny was an intense character,” Dylan said in his speech. “And he saw that people were putting me down playing electric music, and he posted a letter to magazines scolding people, telling them to shut up and let him sing. In Johnny Cash’s world—hardcore Southern drama—that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. I’m always going to thank him for that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man—the man in black. And I’ll cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days.”
Then, Dylan did something extraordinary: He began to demonstrate precisely how some of the hundreds of songs he heard and sang as a young folk artist would beget some of his own most legendary lyrics.
It was Cash’s groundbreaking ballad “How High’s The Water, Mama?” with its signature narrative refrain that inspired Dylan’s own groundbreaker “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
“I wrote [“It’s Alright”] with that [“How High”] reverberating in my head,” Dylan said, astonishing some audience members. “I still ask, ‘How high’s the water, mama?’”
He went on to tie “John Henry” to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” to “Highway 61,” and “Deep Ellum Blues” to “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues.”
The revelations called to mind charges in recent years that some of his lyrics and parts of his memoir, “Chronicles,” were plagiarized. Dylan’s songwriting technique was rather vigorously defended by literary scholars last summer when the issue reemerged.
“These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth—there was a precedent. For three or four years all I listened to were folk songs. I went to sleep singing folk songs. If you sang ‘John Henry’ as many times as me,” he said, and then quoted a stanza from the traditional folk song, “If you’d have sung that song as many times as I did—you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.”
Dylan went on to quote lines from Big Bill Broonzy’s blues hit “Key to the Highway” that he said begat his own “Highway 61,” thrilling music aficionados.
He said he’d sung so many folk songs that began with a variation of “come all ye” that it began to bleed into his own songs, including “Come gather ‘round people/wherever you roam” from “The Times They Are A-Changing.”
“You’d have written them too,” he insisted.
“There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously. All these songs are connected,” he said.
“Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Some got angered, others loved them.”
For all of his appreciation for his predecessors and colleagues, Dylan took a few amusing swipes at some who he said didn’t like or get his songs. This included, strangely, country star Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall, a vanilla country songwriter responsible for the 1968 pop hit “Harper Valley PTA.”
Then Dylan set off on a lyrical riff that just begs for a song of its own: “Tom loves little baby ducks, slow moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trains and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.”
His individual targets may have seemed random, but his ire was focused squarely on the Nashville music establishment of the 1960s and 1970s (and beyond). His comments channeled decades of tension between Nashville’s record industry executives and radio DJs, and renegade artists like Nelson, Cash and Dylan—who for years felt shut out from all important country radio play.
Dylan recalled listening to a Hall song on the radio while he was in Nashville recording an album.
“He was talking about all the things he loves—an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people,” Dylan said. “Trying to make you think he’s just like you and you’re just like him. We all love the same things and we’re all in this together,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.
The bard’s harshest rebukes were reserved for the press.
“Critics have always been on my tail since day one. Seems like they’ve always given me special treatment. Some of the music critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t these same critics say similar things about Tom Waits? They say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free? What have I done to deserve this special treatment? Why me, Lord?
“Talk about slurred words and no diction. Why don’t they say those same things about them?”
“Why me, Lord?” Dylan said. It’s a refrain he would repeat, chorus-like, several times throughout the speech—a subtle nod to Kris Kristofferson, who wrote a song of the same name.
At the close of his speech, Dylan lavishly thanked Musicares and talked about how the worthy organization had come to his friend Billy Lee Riley’s aid when the rockabilly pioneer died impoverished five years ago. He suggested in no uncertain terms that Riley was well-deserving of the honor, even posthumously.
“He did it with style and grace,” Dylan said. “You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas—I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan—I’ve got nothing against them. Soft rock, hard rock, psychedelic pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff, but after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there,” Dylan said. “Yet.”
The last time Dylan publicly suggested a course of action, Farm Aid was born.
In the years ahead, maybe even the months, look for Riley to find his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Bob Dylan talks, the world listens.