I haven’t written in quite awhile. Most of my blogs are about the music business and quite frankly there is not much interesting happening in the music business these days. Most people feel that this is a great time for young musicians, because they can release their music to the public via the internet. These people just don’t know what they are talking about. Today’s music business is almost exclusively pop, urban and country music. Rock music has all but disappeared from the scene. That is a topic for another blog. Today, I want to talk about Bob Dylan. A few days ago I decided to post a playlist on Spotify containing my favorite Bob Dylan songs. I finished in about 20 minutes and realized there 100 tracks on the list and over 7 hours of music! I couldn’t believe it. I never considered myself a Dylanphile, but apparently that is the case. I actually came to appreciate Bob late in life despite the fact that I worked with him on quite a few occasions during my 20 years at Columbia.
I was a fan of Bob’s very early music, circa early 1960s. During my “formative years” (the 1970’s) radio played a lot of Bob Dylan. Unfortunately they played the same songs over and over again. I got tired of “Rainy Day Women”, “Lay, Lady, Lay” and others. Then he embarked on his “Born Again” era and he lost me. I felt he got his groove back with albums like “Oh Mercy” and one of my favorites “Infidels”. The early 90’s found him in a bit of a tailspin. He released two albums “World Gone Wrong# and “Good As I Been To You”of relatively obscure blues and folk covers that sold modestly. The oroginal production was bad and in general the records seemed uninspired. Though the albums have been remastered and sound much better now. Why did one of the most talented and prolific songwriters of all time decide to record other people’s music? Bob felt that no one cared one way or another any more. It appeared things were getting out of control. He then made a concerted effort to reach a young audience and it succeeded on a grand scale. He played colleges and clubs and revitalized his career. He then released “Time Out of Mind”, which arguably is one of his best albums ever. He has continued to release quality albums since and is about to release an album of obscure songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.
I held local and national posts at Columbia. As a local promotion rep in my territory of New York, I would work closely with any Columbia artist that came to the market. Which was everyone. Besides covering shows I would set up interviews for artists at local radio stations. So whether it was Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, George Michael, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash or a hundred other artists (many legendary) it was my job to take them around the market to get radio exposure while they were in town. As a SVP of Promotion, I worked closely with primarily the rock and alternative artists on the promotion strategy for their latest release. So, at either level I spent a good deal of time with the artists and got to know many of them very, very well.
Bob was not one of these people. To my knowledge Bob visited the office once during my tenure at Columbia. My office was right across from the freight elevator and since that was the elevator the biggest acts would use to sneak into the office, I essentially saw everyone that came up. Ironically Bob arrived one day in 1983. I remember because it was the same day that we had the listening party for “Born in the USA”. So, I met both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for the first time on the same day. It was good to be at Columbia.
Artists have different relationships with their label. Dylan seldom had any contact with the staff. Bruce was a bit more accessible. Neither did many radio interviews. In my tenure at Columbia I was able to get Bob to do one pre-taped interview and Bruce also agreed to do one. They both used TV and print to get their messaging across, far more than radio. Michael Bolton had a very different relationship with the label. At the start of his Columbia career, he spent nearly every day in the National office. I guess he had nowhere else to go and he could use our phones and get to spend time with the staff. On any given day, Michael would be on the guest phone in my office (or anyone else’s) while I was making my radio calls from my desk. Other artists visited the office occasionally, when they had a record out. McCartney came up one night around 7pm. Most people had left, but he walked from office to office saying hello and taking pictures and signing things. He knew how magical it was for the people who worked his records to meet him. He had a good perspective on his fame. Jagger, Floyd and most of the other superstars would show up for a exclusive key executive gala or dinner. In anticipation of the release of “Human Touch and “Lucky Town” the entire promotion staff from Columbia flew to New Orleans to hear the records. At the end of the session Bruce showed up and spoke a little. He hung out and drank Tequila with us long after the session was finished. Dylan, never did anything like this. I don’t think he is rude, I just don’t think he ever felt comfortable around strangers and since he really didn’t need to meet people, he chose not to.
Here is a video of “Sweetheart Like You” from “Infidels”
Though I was constantly getting requests from Scott Muni at WNEW-FM to bring Bob up to the station for an interview, I could never get Bob to do it. He had done one other radio interview back in the 70’s. The late Dave Herman interviewed Dylan. Bob strummed a guitar throughout the entire interview. Probably to avoid having Herman edit the conversation. One night sometime in the late 80’s I was driving home and heard Dylan do an interview on the urban radio station in New York, WKTU. Apparently he was working with the producer Roy Thomas Baker and Baker somehow got him to call the station. I prayed that Muni didn’t hear about the interview. Thankfully he did not. The only other interview he ever agreed to was a taped interview for a syndicated radio special with WNEW’s legendary DJ, Dan Neer. Dan was and still is one of the best interviewers in the business. He always did his homework and knew a great deal about music. I am not exactly sure which record Bob was supporting when he agreed to speak to Dan, but it was sometime between 1988 to 1990. Dan prepared well and flew to LA to meet with Bob. Bob was in a very reluctant mood this day. Dan started out asking fairly insightful questions. Bob responded with one word answers. This story is documented in a book called “FM”, that Dan’s brother Richard, also a legendary NY disc jockey wrote. As Bob continued to dismiss Dan’s questions with one word answers, Neer was becoming increasingly nervous. He thought it might turn out to be the shortest interview in the history of the world. At one point, Dan took a break, probably to change tape or underwear. The engineer began making small talk with Bob and revealed that he used to play with Tiny Tim. What Dan didn’t know at the time was that Dylan, as a pioneer of the early folk scene in Greenwich Village, not only knew Tiny, but revered him. Bob asked the engineer if he called him Tiny or by his given name, Herbert. Bob finally opened up and the interview continued. Dan called me on his return to New York and confessed that he may have totally screwed up the job. I jokingly told Dan, it took me ten years to get this interview and it might take another ten to get another. Dan apologized and hung up.
Later that week Bob was playing the Beacon Theater in New York. Ken Dashow, another WNEW personality, was my guest at the show. I took Ken backstage to meet Bob before the performance. We looked in one of the dressing rooms and saw Bob, his head covered by a blue hoodie, sitting in front of a mirror. He looked like anything but a rock star. Bob was especially loquacious this evening. When he heard that Ken was from WNEW he said, “that is where that guy Dan came from? He did a good job on the interview.” I almost died laughing. That night Bob barely faced the crowd for the entire show. At one point he walked off the front of the stage and out the huge metal doors stage right of the auditorium. The band continued to play, led by G.E. Smith. After five minutes or so, Smith wandered backstage while still playing, looking for Bob. Apparently Bob had left the stage, walked through the alley and hailed a cab back to his hotel. Not one of the best shows I have ever seen.
The inconsistency of Bob’s shows is legendary. The next week Bob was playing a small gig at a club in New Haven called Toad’s Place. The club held somewhere around 500 people. Bob’s manager, Jeff Rosen, called to ask me if I wanted to go see Bob that night in New Haven. After seeing the show at the Beacon, I didn’t think it was worth the ride to see another uninspired show, so I passed. That night, Bob played for hours and took requests from the audience. It probably would have been one of the most memorable shows of my life. Oh well. I have seen Bob many, many times since. In recent times he and his band have been on fire.
I wouldn’t begin to say that I know Bob well. I don’t think there are many people who can make that claim. I know artists that have opened for him on tours. Even they say, Bob’s mood changes drastically from day to day. He apparently is never “one of the guys”. I don’t see how he could be. Artists each have their images. Bruce’s image is that of the “common man”(at least it was). Billy Joel, just another kid from Long Island. Which is pretty accurate. Bob is different. Not to detract from Bruce, Billy or anyone else, but how could Dylan not be unique. He almost seems like an alien. He has had to carry the burden of a generation on his back. He didn’t set out to do that, it just happened. He has not had a normal life in over 50 years. That has to change you.
If you are a hard core fan, or merely an interested bystander, check out my playlist by following me on Spotify. Bob Dylan Songbook. There are some really interesting things here. Some tracks from the New York (acoustic) version of “Blood On the Tracks” a version of the child’s song “This Old Man” and several covers. It is a great soundtrack for a day around the house or a long drive.