The Whole Wide World is Watching

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With the re-release of 1985’s charity single “We Are The World,” along with the Live Aid DVD, now might be an appropriate occasion to re-examine some of Bob Dylan’s actions and remarks in connection with those things.

Those too young to remember need to know that it all started with a famine in Ethiopia. Millions faced starvation. Bob Geldof (formerly of the Boomtown Rats) cowrote a song with Midge Ure (formerly of Ultravox) called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” and gathered a group of popstars together under the name “Band-Aid” to record it—with the proceeds to go to famine relief. It became a Number 1 Christmas hit in the U.K., and a phenomenon in Europe. It inspired a similar effort in the U.S., under the leadership of Michael Jackson (formerly of the Jackson Five) and Lionel Richie (The Commodores), who wrote a song called “We Are The World,” and gathered a group of American stars to record it. The whole spirit of popular music stars performing for this charitable cause culminated in a huge, day long, live concert—half in England and half in the U.S.—televised around the world. Viewers were encouraged to call in and pledge money for Ethiopian famine relief. Over $140 million is said to have been raised.

Although Bob Dylan donated his services to both the Jackson/Richie single and the concert, he went out of his way on several occasions to express reservations about certain aspects of the proceedings.

For example, in September of 1985, ABC TV aired an interview with Dylan on their 20/20 program (the only significant TV interview Dylan has done other than 2004’s segment on 60 Minutes). Dylan expressed himself thusly with regard to “We Are The World”:

Dylan: People buying the song and the money going to starving people in Africa is, y’know, a worthwhile idea, but I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song, to tell you the truth. I don’t think people can save themselves, y’know?

ABC’s Bob Brown: Save themselves, in any sorta …?

Dylan: I just don’t agree with that type of thing.

The fragment of lyric that Dylan had been given to sing went “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives / It’s true we make a brighter day / Just you and me.”

Months after singing these words, his concession to it still rankled him, obviously. Without getting into detail here on the rather different message regarding the source of salvation that you might draw from Dylan’s own body of work, it’s interesting that whatever standard he sets for himself left him anguishing long after the fact at having to sing that Jackson/Richie line. And in what, for him then, was the unique experience of being interviewed for television, he made a point of expressing his disagreement with it.

More dramatic still, however, was Dylan’s own performance at the great Live Aid concert itself on Saturday, July 13th, 1985. It’s not a performance that you hear a lot about—and little of it would be positive, I’d wager. On the current Live Aid DVD of the event, only one of the three songs that Dylan sang is present: the final one, “Blowin’ in The Wind” (although the DVD features three songs from Duran Duran, and two each from Reo Speedwagon and Judas Priest).

You would almost need to transport yourself back to the day itself to recall that Bob Dylan was, in fact, top of the bill at this event. The only thing to come after him was the grand finale of all and sundry singing (there’s that song again), “We Are The World.” A list of performers that included (to mention a few) Neil Young, U2, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Queen, Elton John, and Spandau Ballet (they really were big in 1985!), were effectively in the role of support acts to Bob Dylan on the day. And, before his actual performance, I don’t think anyone seriously questioned whether he shouldn’t head that bill. He was, after all, “the voice” and “the conscience” of a generation, was he not? So many of the other performers had been inspired by him. He represented the idealism of the sixties, incarnate, didn’t he? He had written so many songs exploring themes of social justice, and the plight of the disadvantaged and oppressed, right? This concert was like all of those ideals being put into action. It was really a no-brainer to pick Bob Dylan as the climactic act.

And it’s easy to imagine how the producers of the event hoped and thought it would go. The excitement and mood of anticipation growing greater and greater throughout the day, as star after glittering star got on stage and sang two or three of their greatest and most loved hits, culminating with Jack Nicholson coming out on the stage in Philadelphia and introducing the great V of a G himself: the virtually mythological Bob Dylan.

With 1.5 billion people watching, all Dylan needed to do was sing three of his most famous songs and he could have that pumped-up worldwide audience in the palm of his hand. They were dying to hear those poetic words of inspiration from the man without whom arguably none of this would be happening. One of the songs would have to be “Blowin’ in The Wind,” a song known not only to rock fans but to children all over the world (one of the first songs many people play when learning the guitar). Other than that, well, there was just so much to choose from. He could come out and sing the poignant “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” follow that up with the happier “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man,” then finish with “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and (so to speak) Bob’s your uncle. Everyone would be on a cloud of good feeling as Michael and Lionel and co. stepped forth amidst a chorus of angelic children to sing “We Are The World.” Substitute “I Shall Be Released” or “Forever Young” or “The Times They Are A’Changin'” for one of those other two, and you get the same result. Joy all around.

Dylan had other plans, however. “Plans” is the operative word: no matter how ramshackle Dylan’s performance may have seemed on the night (backed up by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, also wielding acoustic guitars), the truth is that it was amply rehearsed. Indeed, a recording circulates amongst bootleg collectors of their actual rehearsals. It seems like they did not take place only on the day of the event, either, but also before it. Dylan did not absent mindedly reach into his back catalog a few minutes before going on stage for some songs to sing; rather, he chose his songs quite deliberately and with some precision and purpose. (As to the rough performance, Dylan later complained that the grand finale organizers had taken away the stage monitors, so he and his guitarists couldn’t even hear themselves. This would explain Dylan’s out of character question to the crowd in between songs: “Does it sound alright out there?”)

So, with one and a half thousand million people tuned in, Jack Nicholson came onstage to introduce Dylan. He said, to rising cheers from the Philadelphia audience: “Some artists’ work speaks for itself; some artist’s work speaks for his generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present to you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man! The transcendent Bob Dylan!”

Dylan then introduced Richards and Wood, and, without further formalities, they launched into a blues tune, in a minor key.

Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin breakin’ down

As Dylan was well aware, this was not a song that the general viewing public around the world would be at all familiar with. There is also nothing pretty about this song, even if performed under optimal circumstances. The dark story of a destitute farmer who uses his last pennies to buy 7 shotgun shells – one each to shoot his wife, his 5 kids, and finally himself – is matched by a sad and low-down melody. On a day dedicated to raising money for the starving, there is no question of the song’s relevance, but it certainly lacked the uplift of, say, Paul McCartney earlier in the day singing “Let It Be.” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown ends with this bland statement, not of hope or of defiance, but of sober recognition and frightening truth:

There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born

The song ended, and (hats off to them) the Philadelphia crowd mustered some cheers. After all, it’s Bob Dylan on stage. (Punch drunk as they were after a day of titanic stars and huge performances, they probably would have cheered if Bob had come out in drag and sung “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”) Dylan told the crowd that he thought the song was a fitting one for the occasion, and then … well, then he dropped his bombshell:

I’d just like to say I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa – maybe they could just take a little bit of it – maybe one or two million, maybe – and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms that the farmers here owe to the banks.

Now, inasmuch as he was regarded by many as a washed-up loon after this performance, it’s important to note that, of-course, Dylan knew exactly what he was doing. As mentioned, he’d rehearsed well for this performance. He was 44 years old and had stood on countless stages and participated in many events all around the world. He knew what was going on on this day of days, and he knew all too well what was expected of him. He understood that he was appearing at the penultimate moment of this mega-huge-gig, and that all eyes were right on him. Indeed, the next song he performed contained the lines: “And the ship’s wise men / Will remind you once again / That the whole wide world is watchin’.”

In a moment when the eyes of the world were upon him in the most literal sense imaginable, Dylan chose to defy the spirit of this enormous occasion—a huge steamroller of global feel-good charity that had rolled over the popular music world—and he chose to address only his American audience. His message? Well, the words are there, and they’re not complicated. He’s telling people to help the debt-ridden farmers of America. You can throw different constructs on this message if you like, I suppose. I think, considering the context of this massive live global event, one might theorize that Dylan was going out of his way to say to America: look within. Look to your own. Do not forget those who are part of the backbone of this nation. Value what you have right here lest you lose it.

Dylan had been around the block often enough to know that he would be pilloried for stepping out of line and making such a statement at such a moment. And indeed Bob Geldof (general organizer, saint and guru of the occasion) was furious. Even much later when he had calmed down enough to write his autobiography, he still had this to say of Dylan, “He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid … it was a crass, stupid, and nationalistic thing to say.” And we can be sure that the great majority of people across the world felt exactly the same way. On a day meant to raise money for the poor in Africa, here is this rich American rock star suggesting that money be diverted to American farmers – who, whatever their problems with bank loans and such, were surely not starving. Dylan simply pushed aside the fact that he would enrage the worldwide audience. He had just sung his old song about a poor South Dakota farmer, and (for once) he had a direct message he wanted to deliver to Americans. No Western Union boys needed.

[ An aside: Those who follow Dylan’s live shows obsessively and note his remarks from the stage might hear an echo in something he said five weeks after the September 11th, 2001 attack on America. He was performing at LA’s Staples Center, where Madonna had recently been. Everyone’s mind being still raw from the events of 9/11, Madonna had exhorted the crowd to “Think global.” I don’t think she meant it in terms of “global conquest.” More likely she was implying that we should see everyone’s point of view on these things, and not be caught up in flag waving and rooting for the home team. Dylan had obviously read it in the paper, and, though he was not very talkative at his gigs in those years, he made an exception this time: “I know Madonna was here a couple weeks ago telling everybody to ‘think global.’ I know a whole bunch of you are doing that. I wanna try to tell you, rethink it.” (10/19/2001)]

In contemplating what Dylan did on that Live Aid stage, it’s also worth noting the business opportunity that he knowingly threw away. A seasoned performer like himself was well aware that it’s not every day you get to play to 1.5 billion people. That’s a helluva lot of record buyers. It’s no secret that their Live Aid performance lifted rock supergroup “Queen” to new heights of popularity in markets all over the world. “U2” likewise were greatly boosted in their global popularity thanks to their impressive performance that day. Dylan was being seen by millions upon millions of people who had never seriously considered buying one of his albums. A respectable performance of a few of his favorites could have been a huge boon to him, and at a time when his career was not exactly shooting skyward. Instead, he performed two songs that virtually no one knew. He followed up the morose (if penetrating) Hollis Brown with the jauntier but still very obscure “When the Ship Comes In,” a song about that ultimate moment of reckoning when all will be put right: the guilty punished and the righteous rewarded. (Though rough edged, it remains this writer’s all-time favorite performance of that song.) It’s an interesting and little-known fact that he had in mind to follow that up with his new (and even more obscure) song “Dark Eyes.” He had mentioned during rehearsals with the Stones’ guitarists that he would like to do “Dark Eyes” if there was time. Hence there was that moment after he sang “When the Ship Comes In,” when he stepped back and said, “How much time we got?” Whatever response he received convinced him that he only had time to do “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and so that’s what he did (and not the prettiest version by any means, of that great song that offers such great questions where so many hear only their own answers). But it’s amazing to think that if he’d had the time, he would have performed a total of three songs that almost nobody knew, on a day devoted to greatest hits by the greatest stars. He was doing anything but going with the flow. And his statement about giving some of the money to the American farmers would inevitably annoy viewers across the world. In a moment when he could have aided his career and his own bank account, his defiance of the group-hug-feel-good spirit of the occasion was an act of some substantial courage. Geldof described it as “nationalistic.” I would venture to say that it was an act of true patriotism – an unrecognized patriotism that is ingrained in this distinctly American troubadour. He himself hates labels, of-course, especially all the “isms,” whether thrown around as compliments or insults. But one thing was clear by what he did and said on that day: he loved America -and he was worried enough about a problem deep within the heartland of the country to shrug off a perfect opportunity to bask in international adulation. Instead, he put himself on the line and willingly made himself the target of barbs and insults from all around the world.

His statement about the American farmer was heard, of-course, in America, and led to the Farm Aid fundraising concerts, with Willie Nelson and others. While I personally have no idea if this charity has stayed true to its purpose or become yet another self-perpetuating provider of “non-profit” jobs for busy bodies, it hopefully helped some real people along the way.

* * *

With hindsight, it was probably Dylan’s Live Aid performance that cemented the whole “Dylan is a burnt-out crank” theory as the conventional wisdom in many circles. It’s true that he had already alienated most of the “rock establishment” with his gospel music—but, after all, that was commonly believed to have ended in 1981. First with 1983’s Infidels, and then with 1985’s Empire Burlesque, it seemed that he might well be on his way to rehabilitation if he would just keep well away from the “J” word. (Instead, it wasn’t until 1997’s Time Out of Mind that Dylan silenced the critics who had considered him washed up.)

With his comments and actions in this period, Dylan demonstrated (yet again) that he does not seek acceptance based on anyone else’s expectations of what he should do, who he should be, or what he should represent. He persists in being true to himself, and, I’d suggest, to certain core principles that can be seen as continuous threads through his entire body of work.

One of those, I’d also suggest, is a belief that America is indeed a special nation, and that the preservation of the particular genius of this still quite young country is not an unworthy goal.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.