Arguably the most coveted ticket during Grammy week, and certainly the toughest to score in the event’s history, was the MusiCares tribute to Bob Dylan on Friday night at the L.A. Convention Center.
In addition to the countless luminaries from the music biz dressed to the nines, there was D.C. royalty, including Jimmy Carter (who called Dylan’s contribution to American culture more important than any presidential act) and Al Gore, spotted in the room. And where else would you see New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft palling around with spiky-haired producer Brian Grazer in what looked like matching black and white sneakers?
The event raised a record $7 million for musicians in need, as a stellar lineup of musicians took cracks at the Dylan canon with a house band led by Don Was. They included Bruce Springsteen (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door”), Neil Young (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), Norah Jones (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”), Jack White (“One More Cup of Coffee”) and Jackson Browne (“Blind Willie McTell”).
Those who take for granted Dylan’s ability to sing epic poems with labyrinthian word play by heart had to appreciate the fact that Alanis Morissette never would have navigated “Subterranean Homesick Blues” without the help of a teleprompter. That was certainly the case with Willie Nelson, whose version of “Señor” was delayed for some sight adjustments.
But the best was saved for last when Dylan gave a speech for the ages (one colleague likened it to the Gettysburg Address). In it he thanked many of his heroes, from John Hammond, who signed him to Columbia Records, to Jimi Hendrix, whose version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” brought it “into the outer limits of the stratosphere,” said Dylan. “I wish he was here.”
Other role models Dylan cited included Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and Joan Baez, whom he called “the queen of folk music then and now.”
Some of his gratitude was tongue-in-cheek, such as thanking acts like the Byrds and Sonny & Cher for making his songs Top 10 hits. “Their versions of my songs were like commercials,” he said. “I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs would be used for commercials.”
Dylan also took the opportunity to take some pot shots at critics who complained about his voice (“why don’t critics say that about Tom Waits?” he asked) and other key figures whom he said didn’t care for his music, like former Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun and the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller. “I didn’t like their songs either,” said Dylan, who called tunes like “Yakety Yak” “novelty songs” that “weren’t saying anything serious.”
By contrast, Dylan praised Doc Pomus, who was an early supporter: “Doc’s songs, they were better. ‘This Magic Moment,’ ‘Lonely Avenue,’ ‘Save the Last dance for Me’ — these songs broke my heart.”
(Pictured: Honoree Bob Dylan, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president Neil Portnow onstage at the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person of the Year Gala)