Bob Dylan was honored by MusiCares, the charity organization that aids musicians in need, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday night. After performances by artists including Tom Jones, Sheryl Crow, Neil Young, Beck, Jackson Browne and others, Dylan himself took a rare opportunity in the spotlight to deliver a 30-plus-minute acceptance speech.
Expansive, funny and insightful, Dylan didn't pull any punches, calling out songwriters who had criticized his work -- or, as in the case of Merle Haggard, songwriters Dylan felt might not have appreciated him -- while indicting Nashville and commercial country music.
He was introduced by former President Jimmy Carter, and walked out to a standing ovation. After thanking the organizers, Dylan referred to his notes and began by saying, "I'm going to read some of this."
Because of moments of applause, and some echoey acoustics, a few of Dylan's words were inaudible on the recording I've consulted, and I've noted as such. Though it upsets him to hear it, Dylan does sometimes mumble and slur his words.
Here are excerpts from Bob Dylan's MusiCares person of the year acceptance speech:
On Merle Haggard and Buck Owens: Merle Haggard didn't even think much of my songs. I know he didn't. He didn't say that to me, but I know [inaudible]. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs ("Love Minus Zero/No Limit"). Merle Haggard -- "Mama Tried," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive." I can't imagine Waylon Jennings singing "The Bottle Let Me Down."
"Together Again"? That's Buck Owens, and that trumps anything coming out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody's blessing -- you figure it out.
(Dylan and Haggard toured together in 2005, on the Never Ending Tour, which also saw Dylan pairing up with Willie Nelson. Haggard took to Twitter on Saturday afternoon to set the record straight: "I've admired your songs since 1964. 'Don't think twice' Bob, Willie and I just recorded it on our new album.")
On Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too, up in 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. I still ask, "How high is the water, mama?" Johnny was an intense character.
And he saw that people were putting me down 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 -- hardcore Southern drama -- that kind of thing didn't exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. They just didn't do that kind of thing. I'm always going to thank him for that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man, the man in black. And I'll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days.
On the dynamic songwriting team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller: I didn't really care what Lieber and Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Stand By Me") thought of my songs. They didn't like 'em, but Doc Pomus did. That was all right that they didn't like 'em, because I never liked their songs either. "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.
Doc's songs, they were better. "This Magic Moment." "Lonely Avenue." "Save the Last Dance for Me." Those songs broke my heart. I figured I'd rather have his blessings any day than theirs.
On Sam Phillips: Ahmet Ertegun didn't think much of my songs, but Sam Phillips did. Ahmet founded Atlantic Records. He produced some great records: Ray Charles, Ray Brown, just to name a few.
There were some great records in there, no question about it. But Sam Phillips, he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Radical eyes that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolution in style and scope. Heavy shape and color. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day. Oh, yeah, I'd rather have Sam Phillips' blessing any day.
On his mumbling vocal style: Oh, yeah. Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don't critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. What don't they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can't carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I've never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?
What have I done to deserve this special attention? No vocal range? When's the last time you heard Dr. John? Why don't you say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters? Talk about slurred words and no diction. [Inaudible] doesn't even matter.
"Why me, Lord?" I would say that to myself.
Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and it was moving.
After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note -- that exists, and some that don't exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was on a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.
Where were the critics? Mangling lyrics? Mangling a melody? Mangling a treasured song? No, I get the blame. But I don't really think I do that. I just think critics say I do.
Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, "Well that's very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth." Think about that the next time you [inaudible].
On Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson: Times always change. They really do. And you have to always be ready for something that's coming along and you never expected it. Way back when, I was in Nashville making some records and I read this article, a Tom T. Hall interview. Tom T. Hall, he was bitching about some kind of new song, and he couldn't understand what these new kinds of songs that were coming in were about.
Now Tom, he was one of the most preeminent songwriters of the time in Nashville.
A lot of people were recording his songs and he himself even did it. But he was all in a fuss about James Taylor, a song James had called "Country Road." Tom was going off in this interview -- "But James don't say nothing about a country road. He's just says how you can feel it on the country road. I don't understand that."
Now some might say Tom is a great songwriter. I'm not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio.
It was called "I Love." I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he's just like you and you're just like him. We all love the same things, and we're all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow-moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.
Now listen, I'm not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I'm not going to do that. I'm not saying it's a bad song. I'm just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway.
Tom and a few other writers had the whole Nashville scene sewed up in a box. If you wanted to record a song and get it in the top 10 you had to go to them, and Tom was one of the top guys. They were all very comfortable, doing their thing.
This was about the time that Willie Nelson picked up and moved to Texas. About the same time. He's still in Texas. Everything was very copacetic.
Everything was all right until -- until -- Kristofferson came to town. Oh, they ain't seen anybody like him. He came into town like a wildcat, flew his helicopter into Johnny Cash's backyard like a typical songwriter. And he went for the throat.
"Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad
So I had one more for dessert
Then I fumbled through my closet
Found my cleanest dirty shirt
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.
You can look at Nashville pre-Kris and post-Kris, because he changed everything. That one song ruined Tom T. Hall's poker parties. It might have sent him to the crazy house. God forbid he ever heard any of my songs.
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
You say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you're gonna say
When you get home
You know something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
If "Sunday Morning Coming Down" rattled Tom's cage, sent him into the looney bin, my song surely would have made him blow his brains out, right there in the minivan. Hopefully he didn't hear it.