It was a Sunday in early September, 1992. I was living in Boston at the time, but still checked out the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times every weekend. The paper was my musical lifeblood, the place where I often found out about music and concerts. Even though I now lived about five hours away from my former home, I still had family in the area, so if there was something exciting going on, I had a place to stay.
On this particular weekend, there was a full page advertisement for a concert at Madison Square Garden on Friday, October 16, at 8 p.m.: “COLUMBIA RECORDS CELEBRATES THE MUSIC OF BOB DYLAN.” There was not much information, and only a few artists were listed. I no longer have the original ad, but I believe scheduled to perform were Neil Young, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn, John Melllencamp, and George Harrison. I thought it would be cool to see a concert full of Dylan songs performed by just these artists. Would they play separate sets, or possibly together like the Traveling Wilburys? Maybe more acts would be added? Remember, these were the pre-internet days. Life was much more mysterious then.
It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the clincher was seeing a certain ex-Beatle. I was lucky enough to catch Harrison at the Nassau Coliseum in 1974, and he had not toured North America since. This would be the third Beatle I would see perform in the Garden.
I called a friend of mine, who I’ll call “Jay,” knowing he would be interested in going. I had the car, and he knew how to get tickets to events like these. I asked, “Did you notice the prices were not listed?” He had, and asked how much I wanted to spend. Thinking out loud, I said, “Well, if it’s $30, $40, and $50, go for $50. However, if it’s something like $50, $100, and $150, then just get the $50.” Realizing my circular logic, I laughed when I had decided that I wanted $50 tickets no matter what.
Jay came through, and got a pair of tickets near the back of the Garden, section 427, row A, for $50 each. I really didn’t care where the seats were, as long as they were inside.
Just before I left for New York, I received a promo CD sampler from Dylan’s upcoming album, “Good As I Been to You.” I found it ironic that here Dylan was being honored for his songwriting, yet his new album was full of covers. Not that I was complaining, mind you, since these four songs sounded great. However, in typically perverse fashion, I doubted Dylan would use this high-profile event to sully himself by blatantly promoting a product!
As more information filtered through, it was apparent there would be many more acts added to the bill. This was, of course, a mixed blessing. I would have been happy with the people originally listed. However, just about every new performer added to the excitement. My friend suggested making lists of who would appear, and what songs they would choose. Mine was more accurate, but he picked some real oddball choices, like Booker T and the MG’s doing an instrumental version of “Lay Lady Lay.”
Jay, a major collector, decided to sneak a video camera into the event, even though the concert was also being shown live on pay-per-view, and a home video and CD set were inevitable. His philosophy was: These events often had additional songs that wouldn’t make it to the final product.
Upon arrival, I saw a $30 sweatshirt for sale, but after paying for the show and parking, I decided to be responsible, and passed. However, I did buy a “special” concert program, which was just the regular Dylan tour book with a unique cover stapled over the outside. Hey, it was cool enough for me!
The first part of the show was not broadcast, which already made the trip worthwhile. My friend was not videotaping most of these acts, his theory being those songs would be interspersed throughout the evening (which did not happen).
Soon after, the concert began in earnest. You’ve read about it elsewhere, and, no doubt, more articles will appear this week, thanks to the upgraded versions of “Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration” on DVD/Blu-Ray and CD, with bonus (and rearranged) material being release tomorrow, March 4, in the U.S.
However, I’ll say this. The array of talent parading before us was almost numbing. One great performance after another, some predictable, some unexpected. “Rolling Stone” magazine hinted Van Morrison, the Arkansas Traveler Revue with Michelle Shocked, Taj Mahal, Elvis Costello, and Joni Mitchell might appear, but none of them did. Even Axl Rose reportedly wanted to perform. It was also apparently a big deal that two members of Pearl Jam performed with acoustic guitars! The article also mentioned the idea of Dylan appearing on MTV Unplugged at the time.
As for the Sinead O’Connor controversy, it appeared very few people booed her at first. It was only when she stood motionless and silent did the crowd turn on her. Someone from a major Boston paper reviewed the pay-per-view special, and was completely baffled by the incident. Later editions updated the article to describe her being booed off the stage. For the record, I continued to cheer.
The sets were often grouped by category, with sections of acoustic, country, and Irish music. The only odd part was the overall selection of songs. Not surprisingly, most people stuck to the 1960s, and only the O’Jays, Willie Nelson, and Lou Reed venturing into the 1980s. But nothing from “Blood On The Tracks” or “Planet Waves”? Well, Reed allegedly considered “Tangled Up In Blue,” and Neil Young wanted to do “Forever Young,” but there just wasn’t enough time. A planned Dylan/Eric Clapton duet would also have to wait until a 1999 “Crossroads” benefit.
As another friend of mine said, “It was the boys with the guitars who stole the show.” Harrison, Reed, Cash, Richie Havens, Young, Petty, and especially Clapton, blew everybody away.
It was, of course, Dylan’s night. He finally appeared toward the end of the show, all by himself. He sang “Song To Woody,” his own tribute to the man who inspired him, and the album that started it all 30 years before. He voice sounded a bit off, but it was the most truthful and powerful moment of the night. The climax, with Roger McGuinn, Petty, Young, Clapton, Dylan, and Harrison, was a defiantly celebratory take on “My Back Pages.” So much talent, so much history, so much younger now. It was almost too much. It felt surreal, and over much too soon.
After the finale of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” with O’Connor taking Axl’s part over the din, Dylan came back for one more song. The solo acoustic ode to a past romance, “The Girl Of The North Country,” was the perfect way to end the night, a special treat for those in attendance, since it did not go out on pay-per-view.
Then it was done, time to go home. As I was leaving to drive to Long Island, I saw Chrissie Hynde outside the venue, talking to some fans.
When the concert was shown on PBS for a fundraiser not long after, the song order was rearranged, with Dylan’s set now beginning with “Girl Of The North Country,” replacing “Song To Woody.” VHS and CD sets were released, but of course fans put together their own 4 DVD version, mixed together from all available sources. However, the deluxe reissue promises to be quite the upgrade.
Don’t bother to complain about what is missing from the release. There are contractual issues, and artistic ones. Paul Simon said the Warner Brothers artists were included on the original releases in exchange for Simon and Garfunkel's Columbia masters to appear of his box set. Who know what kind of negotiations took place to get this back in the marketplace?
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