On February 20, 1991, Bob Dylan (who turns 76 today) was handed a Grammy “Lifetime Achievement Award” by Jack Nicholson. (Will they grant him a second one soon? The man is still working, after all.)
Dylan in 1991 was beginning to receive the oldies act treatment, and he did not appear to enjoy this fact even one little bit. Since 1991: he has released ten albums, the most recent one of which came out on May 20 of this year; has performed a hundred or more live concerts each year on what critics decided to call his “Never-Ending Tour” around 1988; released a dozen box sets from his “bootleg” series; and publish an award-winning volume of his memoirs. Oh! And there are his many paintings and twisted-iron sculptures, some of which he debuted three years ago.
Back to February 1991. The First Gulf War was underway that month, and there was no threat of protest or off-message anti-war statements from the show business crowd attending the Grammy Awards in New York City that night. That war, if you will recall, was going quite smoothly from America’s perspective, what with our “smart bombs” and seemingly bloodless attack.
Protest war at an awards ceremony? Protesting war was an old thing that old people used to do. We were winning this war. So Dylan and his band did the annoying thing and played a violent version of his old protest song “Masters of War,” loudly making the point that protest does not play with popularity. End of story, except it wasn’t, because this was Bob Dylan.
The hard rock performance was led by Dylan’s unpunctuated singing—one might wish that he had enunciated the lyrics, what with them being anti-war and anti-heartless-corporation—but Bob Dylan is not the sort to do the obvious thing even when he gives the world the obvious thing: the “voice of the 60s” hectoring the complacent early 90s crowd.
He finished the song and then he accepted the lifetime achievement plaque. I remember that my friends and I watching at home could not identify the song while we watched the Grammys, but we picked up on the idea that he was protesting, well, loudly and sharply. The performance was (is!) genuinely ferocious. But commentary in the media the next day ridiculed an old man who seemed to have lost his way.
The Lifetime Achievement Award that Nicholson brought forward actually looks cheap, like something some co-workers who do not like their manager would chip in and buy for that manager’s retirement. It looks like something the Grammy people bought at a Kinko’s, and Dylan’s reaction to it betrays that he may have been thinking the same thing: He looks at it, adjusts his hat, drops the thing to his side, looks at it again.
He then delivered this brief speech:
Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said …
[There is a long pause, nervous laughter from the crowd.]
He said so many things, you know? [Laughter.] He say, you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.
And then he was off.
It took him less than a minute, even with his nervous hat fumbling and pauses, but Dylan had just delivered an Old Testament sermon (Psalm 27:10) about the disfigurement of a life spent enslaved to the material things to the bejeweled, genial, war-applauding, music millionaire crowd.
Here is the speech:
There is a rich history of commentary in Jewish tradition. There is also a rich history of commentary in interpreting Bob Dylan’s every public utterance. So here is a little bit more.
Psalm 27 begins (in the King James Version): “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” In King James, verse 10 reads, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.”
Where does “defiled” come from? Or even “Mend your ways?” A couple Dylan interpreters suggest that his language is straight out of the works of one the founders of Orthodox Judaism in the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch’s commentary on the psalm verse reads: “Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways” (Yaffe, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, Yale UP).
As David Yaffe, the author of the Hirsch insight points out, Dylan in the late-’80s and early 1990s performed on the annual Los Angeles-area Chabad telethons that usually offered entertainment from great (and far older) performers like Norm Crosby, Jan Murray, and Sid Caesar. Perhaps Dylan was reading a lot of scriptural commentary; Rabbi Hirsch is not exactly an obscure figure in that field.
(Chabad supporters in 1990 were treated that year’s telethon to Peter Himmelman singing “Hava Negila” with Dylan on harmonica and Dylan’s friend Harry Dean Stanton on guitar.)
Who better to receive a scriptural pronouncement such as this than a bejeweled, genial, war-applauding Grammy audience? I am no Talmudic scholar, nor am I a Bob Dylan interpreter, but this is one of the many reasons I enjoy Bob Dylan’s every appearance.
Someone has placed on YouTube a complete video that includes a CBS News war update from the era, Jack Nicholson’s introduction, the bizarrely sung but musically amazing performance of “Masters of War” (check your volume settings, YouTube seems to be set loud for this video), and the speech:
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