A musician walks up to a microphone…
Parsing the lines of Bob Dylan’s MusiCares speech at the weekend
You’ll be hearing a lot in the coming days about Bob Dylan’s night out at the weekend. On Friday night, as Los Angeles prepared to spend the weekend putting on the glitz for the Grammy Awards, Dylan was the dude in the spotlight at the MusiCares dinner dance. There were performances by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Beck, Tom Jones, Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne and others before Dylan shuffled up to the microphone to deliver a lengthy speech as the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. The transcript of the speech is here (minus a few bits here and there).
It’a often interesting when a performer like Dylan starts to talk rather than sing. Bruce Springsteen delivered a keynote speech at SXSW 2012 which zinged, crackled, popped and cackled in the all right places and all the right ways. Others, such as Neil Young, have often spoken too but seem to hit the wrong notes. I’m waiting for the day when Prince steps out on a stage – maybe dances out onto a stage – to deliver a speech and set the records straight.
Dylan’s speech was fascinating mainly because we rarely hear Dylan these days. Sure, there’ll be the odd interview – such as this one for the American Association of Retired Persons’ magazine on the occasion of new album “Shadows In the Night” – but that’s about the height of it. He’s made his decision to do his thing and if you want to know more, well, there’s always the dustbins. A freewheeling speech like the one at the MusiCares’ beano, then, is an insight into the riffs and thoughts which usually never show up in the Q&A setting of a conventional interview because Dylan has the opportunity to set the tone and context of the presentation.
On Friday night, he thanked and saluted a whole bunch of folks. There was high praise for people like Columbia Records’ talent scout John Hammond and publishers Lou Levy and Artie Mogull. There were mentions for such greats as Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Nina Simone and many more. There was shout outs for other people who covered his songs in the early days like Peter Paul & Mary, The Byrds and The Staple Singers. He called for applause for Doc Pomus and Sam Phillips. So far, so sweet.
It was far more fun, though, to see that Dylan still harbours a grudge and used the opportunity to give both barrels to such bete-noirs as Merle Haggard, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and especially Nashville songwriter Tom T. Hall. He also showed that he’d many bees in his bonnet about those flippers The Critics. I count nine mentions of these critters, as well as some grouching about reviews. It seems that even such fabled idols as Dylan read the 150 word reviews of their new albums so we’d better keep writing them. It’s always eye-opening to see that (a) musicians do read The Critics, (b) musicians take note of and remember what The Critics have said and (c) The Critics do get under their skin time and time again. Cue a giant cackle from The Critics about this.
But there was also something else going on here when you got past the point-scoring and it was about Dylan getting right back to the kernel of what he does and why he does it. “I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary”, he says at one stage about songwriting. “I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.
“Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down. You’ve just got to bear it. I didn’t really care what Lieber and Stoller thought of my songs.”
Without those songs, those songs which were “divisive for some reason”, there wouldn’t be a a Dylan standing at a podium and reading his notes last Friday night. All the myths and the stories and the characters and the assumptions around this man wouldn’t ever have got off the ground if Dylan hadn’t written songs which resonated with people in the first place. That unruly elebatorating on situations – what a beautifully simple line to explain it all – is what made us sit up and pay attention to Dylan in the first place. What he was doing was natural to him, a simple extension of the line to use another lovely thought from the speech, but it was something out of the blue for the audience. Some, as Dylan clearly remembers even all these years later, didn’t like what they heard and said so loudly. Some, and thankfully there was more of these than those, thought differently.
Dylan may not have gave musicians and wannabes the same clear-eyed, clarion call advice as Springsteen in Austin three years ago (“rumble, young musicians, rumble”), but it’s there in the lines if you want to take the time to dig in and find it. It’s probably there in the third line (“it’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing”) and the one sixth from the end (“I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it”) if you care to follow the flow. This game is not for the weak of hearted or those short-term fame hunters. This is for the true believers, the mavericks, the wide-eyed truth seekers, the wild ones. There really is no direction home in this game. Remember that rather than the fact that Dylan is pissed at Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall.