By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) – In the fall of 1992, a group of music industry legends converged on New York City to pay tribute to Bob Dylan by performing his songs at a concert that has come to be seen as one of the most exciting in rock history.
This week, Sony Music Entertainment will release “Bob Dylan – The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,” a new, high-definition DVD/CD edition of the concert at Madison Square Garden. The show marked Dylan’s 30-year recording career with Columbia Records, now a division of Sony. PBS will begin airing the new version beginning March 4.
The lineup that night included Beatle George Harrison, Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and members of The Band and Pearl Jam.
Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Richie Havens, John Mellencamp, Tracy Chapman, The Clancy Brothers, Booker T and the MGs, and G.E. Smith also performed.
“It was incredible,” Smith, a former Saturday Night Live bandleader, recalled last week. “I’ve done a lot of things but never anything like that, with so many great people in the same place. Because it was for Bob Dylan, it felt like it really meant something to everyone there.”
Smith said the artists’ competitive spirits and reverential respect for Dylan produced some of the most remarkable performances he had ever seen. “It was surreal,” he recalled. “Every two minutes something magical happened.”
Over the years, new details have emerged about the event, and new interviews with performers and producers offer fresh glimpses into what went on, and what didn’t, backstage at rehearsals.
Elvis Costello was to perform “Positively Fourth Street,” but visa problems delayed him. Black Flag singer Henry Rollins was invited to perform “Subterranean Homesick Blues” backed by Pearl Jam, but the plan fell through, production sources told Reuters last week.
Broadcast live at the time as a pay-per-view event, the 25-song, four-hour show had to end by 11 p.m. Some of the most potentially intriguing planned performances were lost to rock history.
Clapton and Dylan prepared a new version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry,” and Neil Young, whose sonic take on “All Along The Watchtower” was a concert highlight, also planned to perform “Forever Young” on a pump organ.
At sound checks on the day of the show, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sat alone in the empty front row of the arena, mesmerized as he watched the other performers.
“I felt like … we were in the room with maybe 10 of the 12 apostles,” Vedder said in a new backstage interview included in the set. “It was incredible.”
In late 1992, Dylan’s career was foundering, according to biographers. A series of poorly reviewed 1980s albums had renewed debate among critics over whether Dylan’s career was over. It wasn’t even clear whether the mercurial artist would show up that night, according to liner notes in the new release.
But Dylan did emerge that night to perform several songs, including “Song To Woody,” his heartfelt ode to late folk singer Woody Guthrie, written when he was 19.
The performance moved Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, who sat in the front row, to tears, according to Dylan biographer Howard Sounes.
Later, Harrison, Clapton, Petty, Young and Byrds lead singer Roger McGuinn emerged to trade verses with Dylan on “My Back Pages,” before the house gave him a standing ovation.
“The really remarkable contribution of Bob Dylan is that he took black, rural blues and white folk music, rock and roll and the kind of Allen Ginsberg beat poetry literary sensibility and combined them all,” veteran producer Don Was said in another new backstage interview.
“He was really the first to do that. … His synthesis was the basis for all rock and roll that came subsequently,” Was said.
In the ensuing 22 years, Dylan released several of the most critically acclaimed albums of his career, wrote a best-selling memoir, won an Academy Award, a Pulitzer prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and seven of his 11 Grammys. At 72, he continues to perform and record.
(Reporting By Chris Francescani; editing by Mark Porter)