LOS ANGELES — Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, Jack White and a parade of superstars sang Bob Dylan’s famous words. But it was the words that Dylan uttered himself in an extraordinary, unprecedented, nearly 40-minute straightforward speech about his career, process and critics that made the Grammys’ MusiCares gala Friday night such an historic event.
After former President Jimmy Carter introduced Dylan by talking about how they met during the singer’s Christian period and had discussions about religion and world peace, Dylan shook hands, accepted a trophy and posed for a quick photo. Then he leaned into the podium, a handful of papers in his left hand and read a speech that was at turns insightful, scorching and humorous. It was probably the longest public speech about himself that the fiercely private music icon has given in his career.
Wearing a dark suit, bolo tie and dark brown curls, Dylan spoke clearly to a sold-out audience of 3,000 who helped raise $7 million for MusiCares, Grammy’s charity wing that helps musicians in need. (Newly handwritten lyrics to his “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” sold for $100,000 in a live auction.) Dylan explained that he appreciated how MusiCares had helped one of his heroes-turned-friend, Billy Lee Riley who had the 1957 hit “Red Hot,” with health needs, mortgage payments and living expenses for the last several years of his life.
Not only did Dylan lobby for Riley’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he responded to his detractors, including songwriters and critics. In a speaking voice devoid of Dylanesque rasp and arch, he complained why critics complain about the range of his voice but not about Lou Reed’s or Leonard Cohen’s. He dissed songwriters Tom T. Hall and the team of Leiber and Stoller because they had spoken unfavorably of him.
But Dylan didn’t really come just to unright wrongs, he wanted to thank MusiCares for helping Riley and to thank the 18 singers who interpreted his songs. He also thanked pivotal people in his career including talent scout John Hammond, Joan Baez, Nina Simone and the trio of Peter, Paul & Mary. He also wanted to explain himself in ways that has never been as crystal clear in interviews or even his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Vol. 1.”
Trying to shed light on his songwriting process, he cited several favorite songs that were drilled into his mind such as “Key to the Highway” and “John Henry” and how they inspired lines of his own songs such as “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” respectively.
About Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he said: “It’s not the way I would have done it. They straightened it out.” He said the pop success the Byrds and the Turtles had with his songs were “like commercials. I didn’t mind that. Fifty years later my songs are being used in commercials.”
The night was also about his music. Dylan chose the various performers and what songs they would sing, MusiCares senior vice president Kristen Madsen explained in an interview before the event. But unlike all but one of the previous 24 MusiCares honorees, he didn’t perform. (Neither did Pavarotti, who cited illness.) Also he didn’t really attend the show but rather watched on monitors in a TV truck outside the Convention Center.
Beck kicked off the 2½-hour program with an aggressive tribal blues treatment of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Los Lobos gave “On a Night Like This” a Mexican flavor with some verses in Spanish set to a uptempo party vibe. After a false start because he couldn’t read the TelePrompter at the back of the arena-long ballroom, Willie Nelson eventually delivered a simmering “Senor.”
Jackson Browne offered the obscure gem “Blind Willie McTell” on a revolving stage in the middle of the room.Performing on a stage decorated with the chandeliers and old-movie spotlights that Dylan has been using on his current tour, Jack White spiked “One More Cup of Coffee” with some lacerating guitar. Tom Jones gave a reverent reading of “What Good Am I.” Springsteen contrasted quiet singing on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with roaring guitars, from both him and Tom Morello.
Norah Jones went totally Texas on the jazzy, sexy “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” with some musical flirting courtesy of harmonica ace Mickey Raphael from Nelson’s band. Raitt put the heartache in “Standing in the Doorway.” Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonized on “Girl from the North Country.”
There were a few efforts that fell short. Aaron Neville didn’t sound emotionally invested in “Shooting Star,” Alanis Morissette couldn’t keep up with the tongue-twisting pace of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and John Doe got out-sung by the female backup singers on “Pressing On.” There were taped tributes from Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and Garth Brooks.
The musical high point in a night of many highlights was probably John Mellencamp’s interpretation of “Highway 61 Revisited”; with a vocal tone and timbre that channeled Tom Waits’, he made this usually scorching rocker into a blues dirge. Never has Mellencamp sounded so artful.
And never has Dylan been so talkative about himself in public.