Bob Dylan was honored as the MusiCares Person of the Year for 2015 last night at an all-star tribute in Los Angeles, and almost more noteworthy than the concert itself – which included performances by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Beck, Willie Nelson and many more – was a 30-minute acceptance speech delivered by Dylan where the Blood on the Tracks singer used the spotlight to both slam his “detractors” and thank his “supporters.”
While Dylan thanked Joan Baez (“the queen of folk music then and now”), the Byrds, the Turtles, Nina Simone and Peter, Paul and Mary in his speech, he focused in on Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix, who transformed John Wesley Harding‘s “All Along the Watchtower” into a worldwide smash.
“We can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi perform when he was with a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player,” Dylan said. “He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and brought them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere, turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here.
“Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too,” Dylan said. “I met him about ’63, when he was all skin and bones. He traveled long, he traveled hard, but he was a hero of mine. I heard many of his songs growing up. I knew them better than I knew my own. ‘Big River,’ ‘I Walk the Line.’ ‘How High’s the Water, Mama’? I wrote ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ with that song reverberating inside my head.”
Dylan, who collaborated with Cash for Nashville Skyline‘s “Girl From The North Country,” continued, “Johnny was an intense character, and he saw that people were putting me down [for] playing electric music. And he posted letters to magazines, scolding people, telling them to ‘shut up and let him sing.’ In Johnny Cash’s world of hardcore Southern drama, that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing.”
However, Dylan didn’t just use his 30-minute speech to thank those who inspired him and supported him. His oration was also checkered with moments where he took aim at his early detractors like Merle Haggard and the songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In one instance, Dylan criticized an unnamed “very popular soul-singing sister” who butchered the National Anthem before a Floyd Mayweather boxing match.
“I didn’t really care what Leiber & Stoller thought of my songs. That was all right they didn’t like them. ‘Cause I didn’t like their songs, either,” Dylan said of the “Hound Dog” writers. “Yakety yak, don’t talk back. Charlie Brown is a clown. Baby, I’m a hog for you. Novelty songs. They weren’t saying anything serious.” Dylan then complimented the work of “This Magic Moment” songwriter Doc Pomus.
As for Merle Haggard, “[He] didn’t even think much of my songs. I know he didn’t. He didn’t say that to me, but I know way back when he didn’t. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs,” Dylan said. “Together Again, that’s Buck Owens. And that trumps anything else out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens or Merle Haggard, if you had to have somebody’s blessing, you can figure it out.”
However, Dylan reserved most of his vitriol for “Harper Valley PTA” writer Tom T. Hall. “Now some might say Tom was a great songwriter, and I’m not going to doubt that. At the time, during his interview, I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio,” Dylan said. “It was called ‘I Love’. Listening to it in a recording studio. And it was talking about all the things he loves. An everyman song. Trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think he’s just like you and you’re just like him. We all love the same things. We’re all in this together.
“Tom loves little baby ducks. Slow-moving trains and rain. He loves big pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleep without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on a vine,” Dylan continued. “Now listen, I’m not every going to disparage another songwriter. I’m not gonna do that. I’m not saying that’s a bad song, I’m just saying it might be a little over-cooked.” Dylan criticized Hall for having Nashville “all sewn up” until Kris Kristofferson entered the scene.
Dylan also poked fun at critics who trash his singing voice. “Why don’t they say those same things about Leonard Cohen?” Dylan said. “Why do I get special treatment?”