LOS ANGELES: Bob Dylan is notoriously a man of few words when he’s not singing, but he opened up at a gala tribute to him as he turned the tables on music critics.
The 73-year-old Dylan offered his own assessments of some fellow rock legends — as well as undiplomatic write-offs of other musicians — in an unexpected speech at a charity event ahead of the Grammy Awards.
Dylan was honored Friday night in Los Angeles by MusiCares, which raises money for musicians in need, with a star-studded concert and an introduction by former US president Jimmy Carter.
“There is no doubt that his words on peace and human rights are much more incisive, much more powerful and much more permanent than those of any president of the United States,” Carter said of the emblematic voice of the 1960s counterculture.
A who’s who of music greats covered Dylan’s work at the event including Beck, Tom Jones, Jack White and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Bruce Springsteen joined Tom Morello for a harder-edged rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” while Neil Young closed with another Dylan classic, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Dylan did not perform but instead gave a half-hour speech, staring down at a text on loose papers as if they were sheet music on a stand.
He ribbed music critics, saying that throughout his half-century career they have said of him: “I can’t sing — croak, sound like a frog.”
“Why don’t critics say that about Tom Waits?” he said of the singer with the famously growling voice.
“Critics say my voice is shot — that I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment?”
Charting Dylan’s roots
The speech was remarkable in that Dylan rarely discusses his music and in recent years has given few interviews.
The rock icon described himself as adapting folk tunes, drawing a parallel to how Shakespeare created a more refined form of theater after growing up watching traditional plays in the 16th century.
“You just do it subliminally and subconsciously. It’s the only way that makes sense,” Dylan said.
“These songs of mine, they’re like mystery plays, the kind Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. And I think you could trace what I do back that far,” he said.
He explained “Blowin’ in the Wind” — whose rhetorical questions on the nature of freedom turned the song in a Vietnam War-era anthem — in the context of “John Henry,” the folk ballad about a hard-working African American “steel-driving man” in West Virginia.
“If you had sang that song as many times as I did, you’d have written, ‘How many roads must a man walk down,’ too,” Dylan said.
Hailing other music greats
Dylan thanked Peter, Paul and Mary for turning “Blowin’ in the Wind” into a hit in 1963, saying the song had initially been “buried” on his second album.
Peter, Paul and Mary performed the song “not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out.
“But since then, hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them,” Dylan said.
Dylan also thanked a number of other artists who have covered his songs, including Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez, whom he described as a woman of “devastating honesty.”
He also hailed Johnny Cash for sticking up for him to critics when Dylan went electric in 1965.
“In Johnny Cash’s world of hardcore Southern drama, that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing,” he said.
But Dylan also had barbs for other musicians. He criticized Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, the songwriters who wrote hits for Elvis Presley including “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”