The usual format for the MusiCares Person of the Year event is that perhaps 16 artists sing the honoree’s songs, after which the honoree performs a mini-concert. Bob Dylan didn’t sing a note Friday night when he became the 25th recipient of the Person of the Year honor. He did something even more memorable: He gave an extended speech which was funny and feisty; candid and revealing.
He thanked people who had played a key role in his early career, ranging from talent scout John Hammond to music publisher Lou Levy, as well as artists who recorded his songs early on, such as Peter, Paul & Mary. “They took a song of mine that was buried,” he said, alluding to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “They straightened it out. It’s not the way I would have recorded it (but they made it a smash).”
He also thanked the Byrds, the Turtles, and Sonny & Cher. “Their versions of my songs were like commercials,” he said. He also singled out the Staple Singers, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and Joan Baez. (“She was the queen of folk music then, and she’s the queen of folk music now,” he said of Baez. “…I learned a lot from her.”)
Dylan wasn’t afraid to name names. “I didn’t really care that Leiber & Stoller didn’t like my songs—because I didn’t like their songs either,” he said of the legendary writers of such hits as “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” He said it more to him that songwriter Doc Pomus did like his songs. Dylan’s surprising bluntness drew appreciative laughter from the 3,000 people gathered in Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall.
Dylan thanked MusiCares “for what they did for a friend of mine,” rockabilly artist Billy Lee Riley, who died of colon cancer in 2009. Riley had one notable single, 1957’s “Red Hot,” and a few others that made a bit of noise. Even with that slim track record, Dylan lobbied for Riley to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Sometimes an artist with one hit makes a deeper impact than someone with 20 or 30 hits,” he said.
He questioned why such pop acts as Abba, Steely Dan, and the Mamas & the Papas are in the Hall. “It is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he reminded the audience.
Dylan’s speech—which he had prepared ahead of time and read to the audience—was an unexpected treat, but the evening also contained many musical highlights.
Bruce Springsteen sang Dylan’s 1973 hit “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” backed by Tom Morello. The song started out as a tender ballad, but turned into a blistering rocker. Morello had some provocative words painted in red on his guitar: “Arm the Homeless.”
Beck, who is nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards on Sunday, opened the show with Dylan’s 1967 song “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” In homage to Dylan, Beck played harmonica on the song. (Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow, who appeared later on the bill, also played harmonica on their selections.)
Los Lobos sang Dylan’s 1974 ballad “On a Night like This,” blending English and Spanish. Norah Jones offered a smoky version of the 1968 song “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Tom Jones offered a fine rendition of the 1989 song “What Good Am I?” John Doe of the punk band X sang the gospel-ish 1980 ballad, “Pressing On.”
Neil Young closed the show with an exquisite version of Dylan’s most prized song, 1963’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Two performances were on video. Garth Brooks performed Dylan’s 1997 song “To Make You Feel My Love” (which Brooks turned into a #1 country hit in 1998) from a concert in Pittsburgh. The audience also saw a video of the late Lou Reed performing “Foot of Pride,” taken from Bob Dylan—The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, recorded at Madison Square Garden in 1992.
Paul McCartney didn’t perform, but he offered congratulations via video. Clearly speaking for all four Beatles, he said “You influenced us a lot…We love your poetry. We love your music.” He noted, as many have before him, that the Beatles’ 1965 ballad “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” especially shows Dylan’s influence.
Director Martin Scorsese, who directed the 2005 Dylan documentary No Direction Home, also offered congratulations via video. “His music is within me; deep in my consciousness. His music makes me see things in a different, more profound way.” Actors Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin also offered toasts via video.
Don Was, who produced Dylan’s albums Under the Red Sky (1990) and MTV Unplugged (1995), served as musical director.
The roster of performers included four past Person on the Year honorees: David Crosby (who performed as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash), Bonnie Raitt, Springsteen, and Young.
Also on the bill: Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, Jack White, and the duo of Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi.
Former President Jimmy Carter presented the award to Dylan, saying: “His words on peace and human rights are much more insightful and much more permanent than those of any President of the United States.”
The annual event includes an auction, dinner, and concert. The cheapest ticket this year was $1,500, so it’s pretty much an event for the 1%. The event is for a good cause: Proceeds support MusiCares, the Recording Academy’s affiliated philanthropy, which, in their words, “ensures that music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal need.”
This year’s event raised a record $7 million, according to Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy’s President/CEO.
Dylan, 73, is the oldest Person of the Year recipient to date. He is also, it almost goes without saying, among the most legendary. Other music A-listers who have received the honor include McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Carole King, who was last year’s honoree.