Chabad Telethon (again)

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This video represents the nadir of this blogging project, so far. Click play to see what I think is the single worst Bob Dylan appearance to date, his guitar accompaniment to Kinky Friedman’s performance of “Sold American”.

The place was the 1991 telethon for Chabad. Two years earlier Dylan had shown up on this event with Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Himmelman to perform three songs on the flute. I called it “Dylan’s most bizarre concert appearance (so far)”. This one doesn’t top that in terms of bizarreness, but does blow it out of the water in terms of sheer incompetence.

Ok, hit play on this YouTube video:

To my ears, this is almost completely unlistenable. It causes me stress and anxiety. I had trouble making it all the way to the end one time. If you focus on Dylan’s electric guitar noodling, it is even worse (go to about 52 seconds in and try to listen for the next twenty seconds). Not only does it seem like Dylan doesn’t know the chords to the (simple) song, but he occasionally looks at his fret board of his guitar as if he doesn’t know what it is. He picks out some random chords, and often slides down to other chords. There are a number of just plain bum notes (“jazz notes”, in the words of my banjo teacher, “It’s never a mistake! It’s just jazz!”). Dylan just sort of frowns and seems lost. Friedman, for his part, just ignores Dylan, bravely trying to get through the song.

Kinky Friedman is a great minor character in Larry Sloman’s book about the Rolling Thunder Revue. Sloman and Freidman are friends, and Sloman was always trying to get Friedman involved with the tour. Friedman seemed to think – according to Sloman – that Dylan didn’t like him, so he was reluctant. He does show up in a very memorable scene, but it doesn’t really work out for the best (Sloman seemed to have been losing his mind and drifting into Hunter S. Thompson territory around that time, which didn’t help matters). So I was kind of thrilled to learn that the two teamed up a decade and a half later. Not anymore.

There is something about this telethon that seems to push Dylan to do as much damage to his image as he possibly can. The flute was certainly a misstep, but this is just sort of a tragic image. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought that this was a formerly great musician lost to the temptations of drugs. I think, though, he was simply lost.

This is a highly ironic performance given the topic of my next blog entry…

2 thoughts on “Chabad Telethon (again)

  1. Rusty

    I had no idea this even existed, but you’ve made me suddenly realize that it was probably Dylan who motivated a sea-change in my popular music consumption. For a long time I tended to become an enthusiast–if I picked up on an artist, I would explore their back catalogue fairly methodically, read up on them, and regard each new album like a win (if it were good) or loss by a favorite sports team (and a big hello goes out to Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, and Richard Thompson). So when somebody like Dylan seemed to be circling the drain, it seemed kind of personal, at least a personal failure of taste.

    Eventually, though, (and probably as happens to a lot of sports fans) I realized, “Their artistic success or failure doesn’t reflect on me–if a person makes music I like and want to hear, great; if not, so it goes.” So when Dylan would later pop up with something I really liked (examples to be discussed in their proper sequence), it was like having a plant out in the yard that I thought had gone to seed suddenly flower again. When it works right, it means that the stuff you like can make your life better, but it can’t make it worse.

    That being said, I thought the last couple of efforts by Magnetic Fields were kind of disappointing, and I’m really hoping for better next time. 🙂

  2. Dr. LInda Vennard

    Interesting. I grew up in the 60s and was a huge Bob Dylan fan right from his early beginnings. I saw him in person in Calgary in about 1991, in a show that sold out almost immediately. I thought it would be a stellar show – but he seemed to have no idea what was going on. For each song his backup band would start playing something no one could even identify, and the audience in my immediate area started to guess what Dylan might start singing. He’d suddenly burst in with whatever song seemed to occur to him and even switch songs as he went along. We were all hardcore fans and knew those songs by heart – but it was all an unrecognizable mess. People just started leaving, and by the time the concert was over the Jubilee Auditorium has more than half empty.

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