Columbia Records Celebrates the Music of Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden on Friday night - with a huge roster of stars - must have puzzled Dylan more than the rest of those present.
For four and a half years now his Never-Ending Tour has criss-crossed the back roads of America - with the odd diversion into Europe, South America and Hawaii - with Dylan cycling to work, playing small halls with his anonymous band, refusing to admit press photographers and avoiding any notion of promoting his latest releases. Most of the time, his record company doesn't even know where he is.
In bizarre contrast, it was suddenly decreed from on corporate high that there was to be a Live Aid-Lennon Memorial type megabash to “celebrate" his 30th anniversary on the Columbia label. That he has not always been on Columbia, that they first signed him thirty-one years ago, and that the celebration has come seven months too late to mark the anniversary of his first release - none of this mattered either to the media machine selling the event to TV around the world or to the fans at the 4-hour-plus show.
Many stars rumoured to be coming did not materialise - Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison - and there were conspicuous absentees - Joan Baez, Robbie Robertson - but there were plenty left, one act following another in impressively quick succession, serviced by roadies working like a pit-stop team and a house-band led by ex-Dylan guitarist G.E.Smith.
John Mellencamp, loudly unexciting, Johnny Winter, louder and worse, Kris Kristofferson crunching through ‘I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' and the record-company president giving a speech - these were the lowlights.
There were others whose sheer presence contributed authority and excitement: Johnny Cash, the man in the short black coat, and surprise guest Stevie Wonder.
The younger acts were a very mixed bunch. Sophie B. Hawkins proved a pale pretender to Laura Nyro territory. Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam gave a fine folkclub performance of ‘Masters of War' successfully transposed to the 20,000-seater venue, but the song sounded dated and pious. Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and Roseanne Cash were merely competent on ‘You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', while Tracy Chapman managed an odd mix of the powerful and cosy on an anthem with no obvious current applicability, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin''.
Where were the real young interpreters? Where were Jason & The Scorchers and The Poster Children? The one comparative newcomer whose presence did create real electricity was Sinead O'Connor - and it was solely her presence that did it. Large parts of the crowd booed, laughably unmindful of the events of 1966 and with real hatred seething through the hall. It was a repulsive indictment of the mob mentality of stadium-rock events.
Neil Young took over with a customarily robust performance. Georges Harrison and Thorogood, Chrissie Hynde, The Band, The O'Jays, Tom Petty, Ron Wood and Roger McGuinn all acquitted themselves well enough, but the heavyweight honours went to Lou Reed, choosing, to his credit, an obscure early-80s song, ‘Foot Of Pride', which was fierce and committed; the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem with a gloriously unrockist, moving ‘When The Ship Comes In', Clapton with a real reoccupation of ‘Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' as a churning blues; and Charles Dickens lookalike Willie Nelson, who was one of the oldest present and chose the newest song, 1989's great, and savagely apt, ‘What Was It You Wanted?'
Then, at the end, after the ballyhoo, on came Bob Dylan - and with the feeling and deft intelligence that created this great sweep of musics and poetry, he chose ‘Song To Woody', stressing that he sees himself in a line of figures like Guthrie and Leadbelly: people who took their own roads and didn't serve the entertainment industry.
A couple more songs - a solo ‘It's Alright, Ma' and a genuinely celebratory ‘My Back Pages' shared with an inner circle of compadres, an inevitably rabble-rousing finale with everyone ‘Knockin' On Heaven's Door' and in the final end a solo ‘Girl of the North Country': a poignant choice and a subdued performance no more attuned to the demands of the big media event than Dylan ever is.
And next month he releases a new album. It doesn't have one Bob Dylan song on it, it's his first solo acoustic “product" in 28 years, and it's a mixture of folk ballads and pre-war country blues, with a Stephen Foster song and a nursery rhyme thrown in. Almost no-one who was at Madison Square Garden last Friday night will buy it, and Bob will be back in the small halls.
© Michael Gray, 1992.