The ticket said “Columbia Records celebrates the music of Bob Dylan,” but it was Neil Young who nailed the name when he dubbed the memorable all-star event the Bobfest. After all, what – or more accurately who – else could cause Johnny and June Carter Cash to rock out and Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam to unplug?
Throughout the four-hour, pay-per-view-broadcast tribute to Dylan, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on October 16th, some impressive party guests threatened to steal the show, and one who gave an aborted performance – Sinead O’Connor – grabbed most of the headlines with her controversy du jour.
Stevie Wonder spoke eloquently of how sadly relevant the words of “Blowin’ in the Wind” remain today, then proceeded to soulfully make the standard his own. Neil Young seemed to transform the house band into Crazy Horse as he ripped through inspired versions of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “All Along the Watchtower.” A vaguely godlike Eric Clapton masterfully remade “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” George Harrison lovingly rendered “If Not for You,” while Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers offered a wonderfully subtle reading of Dylan’s underappreciated “License to Kill” then a wild raveup of “Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35.” And in a smart nod from the new generation, the aforementioned Pearl Jam members didn’t even need any Seattle sonics to make “Masters of War” a righteous, intense thrill.
Finally, though, the evening belonged to Dylan, who in both his own fine performance and through his songs offered a powerful testament to what one man can do armed only with a guitar, a harmonica and a remarkable lifetime of songs.
“This is kind of the ultimate event,” said Johnny Cash, a longtime fan and friend of Dylan’s, “because it’s celebrating Bob’s talent, and to me, with everything else he’s been, Bob Dylan is still our greatest American folk songwriter.”
Eddie Vedder – who seemed positively transfixed as he watched the entire Friday-afternoon rehearsal from the front row of the Garden, then the entire show from the side of the stage – seemed overwhelmed by the day’s proceedings. “I was blown away,” he said. “Blown away to be here and blown away by all I saw. I’m still taking it all in.”
“That was as much fun as I could ever have,” said Lou Reed, who spent the day blissfully bonding with his fellow performers. “As much fun as anyone could legally have.”
“Now that,” said a beaming Tom Petty backstage after the show, “was one cool party.”
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The rock & roll party of the year came together in recent months, coordinated by Dylan’s management and Columbia Records president Don Ienner. “The idea was to pay tribute to Bob and his incredible songs,” said Ienner. “Over the last thirty years with Columbia, he’s changed music and the world. If anyone deserves a party, it’s him.”
Some people, however, felt they didn’t deserve being charged the $50 and $80 for tickets (a limited number of $150 seats were reserved for record-industry types wanting some hospitality privileges). Although co-executive producer Kevin Wall estimated that the show cost more than $5 million to produce, many observers were taken aback by the decision to make the show a for-profit event. Nevertheless, the 18,200 tickets for the show sold out in just over an hour.
But by the time most of the artists made their way to New York for rehearsals at the Kaufman Astoria Studios, in Queens, S.I.R Studios, in Manhattan, and the Garden itself, such issues seemed irrelevant, as the performers seemed swept up in the spirit of the event. Artists mingled freely in the lobby of the Rihga Royal Hotel, in midtown, where most of the acts were put up. Rehearsals on Thursday night and Friday afternoon became amazing private Garden parties, with even the biggest stars sitting in the seats of the nearly empty arena, happily checking out what everyone else was playing. Old friends caught up, while new connections were formed – Tom Petty and members of Pearl Jam struck up a mutual-admiration society throughout the day, and Sinead O’Connor agreed to record a duet with Willie Nelson and Don Was over the weekend. Dylan himself kept a typically low profile but was said by all who spent time with him to be in a sweet, upbeat mood.
The only remotely negative talk behind the scenes before the show was of artists who were curiously not in attendance – Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, Bono, Elvis Costello (whose immigration papers were said to have been mishandled) and Axl Rose, who was rumored to want on to the show at the last minute. Still, the fact is that many artists closely associated with Dylan over the years – Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of the Band; Roger McGuinn; Cash; George Harrison; and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – were present, and by show time, such concerns seemed forgotten.
Backstage, things were friendly, warm and surprisingly low-key, even with a procession of notables that included Martin Scorsese, John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal, Penny Marshall, Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, Shirley MacLaine, Lenny Kravitz, Sean Lennon Ono, Jakob Dylan, Carly Simon and, most bizarrely, Donald Trump, who forced his way into a conversation between Tom Petty and Lou Reed, leaving them baffled by his hearty endorsement of their “jamming.” The show itself kicked off with “Gotta Serve Somebody” from the top-notch house band, which featured legendary soul keyboardist Booker T. Jones and MGs guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn, with session great Jim Keltner and Anton Fig on drums. Longtime Saturday Night Live bandleader and guitarist G.E. Smith – who served Dylan so well on the road in the Eighties – acted as musical director. The selection of the band was an ingenious choice on Dylan’s part as the group lent the proceedings an exceedingly soulful coherence. “The whole night was like one long epiphany for me,” said Smith.
If the band helped provide the musical continuity, Sinead O’Connor lent the evening more than its fair share of drama. That afternoon she rehearsed a haunting version of Dylan’s “I Believe in You.” But when introduced to the crowd by Kris Kristofferson as “a name synonymous with courage,” O’Connor was met with a loud mix of boos and cheers, the former apparently inspired by the singer’s controversial shredding of a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live two weeks earlier.
The cheers gradually faded away, leaving only boos as O’Connor stood at attention and stared down the crowd, stopping the band twice from launching into the song. She defiantly launched into an abbreviated version of “War” – the same Bob Marley song that had preceded her papal protest on SNL – before leaving the stage. A shaken-looking O’Connor then stood just offstage for much of Neil Young’s set, while a courtly Kristofferson attended to her. O’Connor returned to the stage with the other artists for the encore of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” even chiming in with some prominent “Hey, hey, hey’s” that seemed inspired by Guns n’ Roses’ version of the song. Other artists backstage seemed split between those who were supportive of O’Connor and those who felt that she was wrong not to simply start the song and win the crowd over and that by performing the Marley song, she had violated the spirit of Dylan’s evening.
Lou Reed, for one, later said that he was outraged by the audience’s treatment of O’Connor. “I thought the way the crowd behaved was absolutely reprehensible,” said Reed. “You would think that if any audience would be responsive to protest music, it would be Bob Dylan’s. She’s a real artist, and now they say Madonna’s attacking her, which is totally ridiculous.” Even without O’Connor, the concert did show that Dylan’s songs transcend genre, seamlessly incorporating everything from the heartland rock of John Mellencamp (who played a strong “Like a Rolling Stone,” complete with Al Kooper on organ) and the swampy country noir of Willie Nelson (“What Was It You Wanted?”) to the gospel-tinged soul of the O’Jays (“Emotionally Yours”), the inspired hard-rock thump of Lou Reed (“Foot of Pride”) and the timeless traditional Irish folk grace of the Clancys (a breathtaking “When the Ship Comes In”).
Still, the show was hardly perfect. Some exciting planned selections – “Forever Young” by Neil Young and a link-up of Clapton and Dylan for “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” – were sadly cut because of time constraints. The appearance of Sophie B. Hawkins – who acquitted herself well enough with “I Want You,” her latest single – struck some as a case of label boosterism by Columbia, and one could question the logic of adding George Thorogood to a bill that already included Johnny Winter.
Indeed, Winter was one of the night’s most pleasant surprises, with a powerhouse version of “Highway 61 Revisited” that was a nice nod to Dylan’s own deep-blues roots. There were plenty of other highlights. Rolling Stone Ron Wood rocked the house convincingly with “Seven Days” and gave the evening’s most winning Dylan impersonation. There were also strong turns from, among others, Roger McGuinn (who joined the Heartbreakers for a rousing “Mr. Tambourine Man”); Tracy Chapman (“The Times They Are A-Changin’ “); the trio of Columbia folkish divas Rosanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”); and Chrissie Hynde (a lovely, Paul Shaffer-assisted “I Shall Be Released”). And an all-star version of “My Back Pages” – with Dylan, McGuinn, Clapton, Petty, Harrison and Young among those pitching in – was loose but memorable.
The man of the hour took to the stage only toward the end of the show, introduced by longtime pal and devoted admirer George Harrison, who referred to their shared Wilburys past. “Some of you may call him Bobby,” said Harrison. “Some of you may call him Zimmy. I call him Lucky. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Bob Dylan.”
With that, Dylan – dressed in his rock & roll formal wear – appeared with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and opened his own set with “Song to Woody,” a moving tribute to his own musical hero, Woody Guthrie. Next up was a passionate “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” with its poignant insistence that “I got nothing/To live up to.” Unfairly or not, the truth remains that a living legend like Dylan does have a tremendous amount to live up to, and he did so gracefully.
Proving that the Bobfest was a movable feast, Dylan and most of the performers adjourned after midnight to Columbia’s all-night postshow party at Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion – Dylan’s choice – for food, drink and further early morning bonding. But the lasting final image of the concert came just after the pay-per-view cameras were turned off and the final credits had rolled. Without introduction, Dylan returned to the Garden stage one more time, apparently correctly sensing that the audience had not heard enough from him yet, and launched into a heartbreakingly lovely and understated version of “Girl From the North Country.” In doing so, Dylan brought it all back home one more time.
This story is from the November 27th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.