LOS ANGELES – Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, 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 such a 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 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.
$7 million was raised
Dylan spoke to a sellout audience of 3,000 who raised $7 million for MusiCares, Grammy's charity wing that helps musicians in need. He explained that he appreciated how MusiCares had assisted one of his heroes-turned-friend, Billy Lee Riley — who had the 1957 hit "Red Hot" — with health care, mortgage payments and living expenses for several years.
Not only did Dylan lobby for Riley's induction into the Rock Hall of Fame, he responded to his own detractors. In a speaking voice devoid of Dylanesque rasp and arch, he complained about why critics complain about the range of his voice but not about Lou Reed's or Leonard Cohen's.
But Dylan didn't come just to right wrongs; he wanted to thank the 18 singers who interpreted his tunes and some people who were pivotal in his career, including talent scout John Hammond, Joan Baez, and the trio of Peter, Paul & Mary. He also wanted to explain himself in ways that have 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." And 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 performers and what songs they would sing. But unlike the previous 24 MusiCares honorees, he didn't perform. 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." 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. Bonnie Raitt put the heartache in "Standing in the Doorway."
The musical high point in a night of many highlights was John Mellencamp's interpretation of "Highway 61 Revisited"; with a voice 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.
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