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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

WHEN BOB MET MICHAEL JACKSON . . .

I meant to post this item weeks ago, when it might have claimed some vicarious topicality, but because it comes from the manuscript version of the book John Bauldie and I co-edited, All Across the Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987, it's on my computer in a very old version of Word - it had started out on the green pastures of Amstrad Locoscript - but I couldn't access it until last night, when a visiting younger member of the family spent about ten seconds at my keyboard retrieving it for me. So. Almost as interesting as the preposterous story the article tells is the now-ancient nature of the technology described early on:


DYLAN & THE MAKING OF USA-FOR-AFRICA
by John Bauldie*
revised from an article originally published in issue no. 20 of fanzine The Telegraph

Having been stunned by the Ethiopian situation and impressed by the efforts of Band Aid, the man for whom Bob Dylan played harmonica on his first-ever venture into a professional recording studio (June 1961) - Harry Belafonte - is determined to get something going in America too. He asks manager Ken Kragen for advice, and Kragen, predictably, suggests a record.

Kragen used to manage the late Harry Chapin, himself a crusader against world hunger. Now, in addition to Belafonte, Kragen manages wealthy Lionel Richie and fabulously wealthy Kenny Rogers (and therefore has a bob or two himself). Kragen puts the idea to Rogers and Richie, and both are keen to respond. The ball is rolling. By January 22nd, 1985, the song that is needed has been written, but not yet polished up, by Richie and Michael Jackson, and arrangements have been made to get something down on tape.

On January 22nd, then, in Kenny Rogers' Lion Share Recording Studio on Beverly Boulevard, there is a recording session to get the basic instrumental track down. They have six takes. When the backing is to producer Quincy Jones' satisfaction, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie have to add a guide lead vocal. The idea then is to duplicate this onto fifty cassettes, to be sent out to the invited potential performers, so that they'll be familiar with the song before the upcoming main recording-session.

On this guide-version, the lyrics aren't finished. "There's a chance we're taking/We're taking our own lives" is causing some worries. The second line sounds suicidal, the first self-congratulatory. Richie changes the second "taking" to "saving", while Jones comes up with "There's a choice we're making." This version of the song also has a chorus of gobbledegook: "sha-lum, sha-lingay." But by 1.30am this demo is wrapped up.

Two days later, the fifty cassettes are sent out to all the artists by Federal Express, which provides its delivery services free. With each cassette is a letter from Quincy Jones addressed to 'My Fellow Artists':

"The cassettes are numbered, and I can't express how important it is not to let this material out of your hands. Please do not make copies, and return this cassette the night of the 28th. In the years to come, when your children ask 'What did Mommy and Daddy do for the war against world famine?' you can say proudly that this was your contribution."

On January 25th there is an administrative meeting, with Kragen as concerned as Jones had been to stress the need for absolute secrecy:

"The single most damaging piece of information is where we're doing this. If that shows up anywhere we've got a chaotic situation that could totally destroy the project. The moment a Prince, a Michael Jackson, a Bob Dylan - I guarantee you! - drives up and sees a mob around that studio, he will never come in."

Secrecy is ensured, and Bob Dylan does come in. He arrives pretty early, soon after nine o'clock, on the evening of January 28th. Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and Ray Charles are there already:

"Bob Dylan slouches in, stone-faced, and sits down in the seat closest to the door." He has just walked under Quincy Jones' sign which reads 'Please Check Your Egos At The Door'. The session is at the A& M studios, across the road from the Shrine Auditorium, where the American Music Awards ceremony is being held the same night but is due to finish at 10pm. Jones hopes to get things started soon after 11.

Few seem to have noticed the irony of tables in Studio B groaning with $15,000-worth of roast beef, tortellini, imported cheeses, fruit and delicacies: provided free by Someone's In The Kitchen Catering, but somewhat incongruous in the circumstances.

As more and more people arrive, the studio gets noisier and Dylan is not allowed to sit silent for long:

"Bruce Springsteen arrives with no entourage, no bodyguards. He simply parked his rented car across the street from the studio, breezed by security and entered the control room, where he's smothered in giggles and hugs by the Pointer Sisters. He hugs Dylan..."

After suffering the Springsteen hug perhaps Bob finds the Diana Ross hug more comfortable. Perhaps not:

"From a dramatic dipping hug with Quincy, Diana jumps into 'Bobby' Dylan's lap for a few minutes..."

Some time after 11pm, the recording begins - choruses first, so that none of the egoless stars will walk out if they find that vocal arranger Tom Bahler hasn't given them a solo vocal line in the verses. Each performer has been allocated a particular place to stand. Each name is on a piece of silver gaffer-tape on the risers. Egoless Diana Ross has been carefully allocated a place in the middle of the front row, between Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

On the other side of Michael Jackson - between him and Paul Simon - is a space marked 'Prince'. He never shows. He'd offered to play a steaming guitar part, but was asked to do the same as everybody else. ("Fuck him. What is he? A creep" - Bob Geldof.)

After several takes of the chorus, a break is announced and the company makes for the roast beef. Video screens replay the session-so-far. LaToya Jackson (one of Michael's sisters) checks her yellow head-band and make-up. Diana Ross checks everybody's make-up. Stevie Wonder remains unimpressed.

Dylan is with Paul Simon but is confronted by Billy Joel and fiancée Christie Brinkley, who looks star-struck. She begins to babble about a new scheme - Fashion For Africa: models and designers pooling their talents to relieve world hunger. Unfortunately Billy Joel is not star-struck, and hugs Dylan.

At one in the morning, the chorus reconvenes: but there's a problem with the "sha-lum, sha-lingay" line. Stevie Wonder has had an idea. Instead of "sha-lum, sha-lingay", why not a line in Swahili? Waylon Jennings figures that no good ole boy ever sang in Swahili and leaves the studio, never to return. Bob Geldof points out that Ethiopians don't speak Swahili (more properly, they don't speak KiSwahili). Michael Jackson votes to keep the "sha-lum sha-lingay" line. But then he would, wouldn't he?: he wrote the line in the first place.

It is tried out again, but a secret and subversive coalition is forming between Paul Simon and Al Jarreau. Cyndi Lauper wants to join in. She's not sure what a subversive coalition is but it sounds like fun - specially with Al Jarreau. The manifesto is to find something meaningful to sing, preferably in English. Jarreau soon produces a meaningful new line:

"One world, our world."

Michael Jackson is stunned. He never knew that songs could be so meaningful. Nothing he ever wrote made as much sense as this new Jarreau line. But the new line's main champion becomes Cyndi Lauper, who recognises the line's depth and message:

"That's right! Aint what we're doing trying to unite the world?"

Stevie Wonder begins to sulk. Tina Turner says she prefers "sha-lum, sha-lingay" anytime. The song is eventually tried with the Jarreau line, though by this time it too has been substantially changed. Now it's "One world, our children," which Quincy Jones thinks is the best line yet. There is no information on who came up with it. Perhaps it was Quincy. To relieve his frustrations at not being allowed to sing in KiSwahili, Stevie Wonder suddenly breaks into 'The Banana Boat Song'. (This is all true.) There is later speculation that this was "a sudden tribute to Harry Belafonte, who had first suggested this benefit recording-session." 'The Banana Boat Song' proves much more popular than "One world, our children" and the whole chorus defects to singing "Day-o! Day-o!". . . Stevie Wonder cheers up.

Meanwhile Bob Geldof "draws a map of Africa on a piece of sheet music" to explain to Bruce Springsteen "the logistical difficulties" of famine relief, while Willie Nelson explains to Dylan the logistical difficulties of golf:

"...Nelson asks Bob Dylan if he plays golf. Dylan, slightly amused, replies 'No, I've heard you had to study it.' Says Willie - who has become obsessed with the game - 'You can't think of hardly anything else.'" Huey Lewis joins in this discussion with an echoing enthusiasm. Dylan remains polite. He and Willie exchange 'phone-numbers and tentatively plan to meet in Hawaii during school spring break with the kids, to start working on material for a mooted joint album.

(Perhaps at this point Willie mentions that the song Bob keeps calling 'When I Think Of Her' is actually called 'Why Do I Have To Choose?' Perhaps he asks Bob why he dropped it from the '84 tour set. Perhaps he also asks why Bob accidentally took the composer-credit for 'Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground', on the B-side of the 'Union Sundown' single.)

Willie Nelson is looking cleaner and smarter than anyone has ever seen him look before. He looks ten years younger and would pass for 62. Bob Dylan also looks fairly well-groomed, in a smart soft-leather black bomber jacket and a light-&-dark grey-checked shirt which could have come from Next For Men. Photographs are taken.

Between three and four in the morning, soloists start getting organised. Stevie Wonder introduces two Ethiopian women to the performers. Things proceed slowly.

"Where's Bobby Dylan?" yells Quincy. "Let's get Bobby in here." It is 5.30am.

Dylan is taken to Stevie Wonder for a rehearsal of his solo lines: (ahem: "There's a choice we're making/We're saving our own lives/It's true, we'll make a better day just you and me.") Stevie wants Dylan to sound like Dylan.

"Dylan is tentative. Stevie is doing a better 'Dylan' than Dylan - more whining exaggeration - and explains, 'Do it more like this'. After twenty minutes of coaching from Wonder, Dylan approaches the microphone. He barely manages a mumble. Lionel clears almost everyone out. With each successive take, Dylan gets stronger - more like himself. He asks Stevie to play the piano behind him. Quincy rushes in after the take. 'That's it. That's it. That's the statement.' Dylan, unconvinced, mutters 'That wasn't any good.' Lionel tells him: 'Trust me.' As Quincy gives him a bear hug" [of course] "and whispers 'It's great.' Dylan finally smiles. 'Well, if you say so.'"

At exactly 5.57am, Dylan's lines are played back over the monitors. Lionel Richie falls flat on his back, eyes closed, then dances awhile, waving his ladies' Reebok aerobic shoes in the air. The shoes have been manufactured in Bury, England, home of The Telegraph. One world.

"Soon after, Al Jarreau corners Dylan by the piano. He's choked up. 'Bobby', Jarreau says, holding back tears, 'in my own stupid way I just want to tell you I love you.' Dylan slinks away without even looking at him. Jarreau walks to the door of the studio, looks back at Dylan, cries 'My idol,' bursts into tears and leaves."

Then Bruce Springsteen finally moves forward to record his solo:

"'You sounded fantastic, Dylan,' he calls to Bob as he steps to the mike. Dylan leans against the wall to watch Bruce work..." Springsteen produces a flawless first take, and it's time to leave.

Dylan, who slunk away from Al Jarreau possibly fearing another hug, cannot evade a block tackle by linebacker Bette Midler. Midler, whose earlier attempts at seducing Dylan were reported in The Sun in November 1982, you'll remember (in caseyou don't, they were unsuccessful: "I got close...a couple of first bases in the front seat of his Cadillac"), is as determined as anyone to hug Bobby. This time her determination proves irresistible:

"Bette Midler hugs Dylan, tells him 'Goodnight, dearest.'"

By eight o'clock everyone is on the way home. 'We Are The World' is in the can. Some weeks later a bruised and thoroughly hugged Bob Dylan appears, improbably enough, on millions of television screens in 1985 pop music programmes all over the western world.


* This article has been almost entirely winkled out of a thorough account of the relevant events by freelance writer David Breskin in Life in April 1985, plus a tiny bit from the We Are The World book, Perigree Books, USA, 1985. I hope this explains why some paragraphs appear in quotation marks.

8 Comments:

Blogger elquesefue said...

thoroughly enjoyed it. i was born in 1971. the first time i ever saw dylan was in this video. i didn't know who he was! but i remember being struck by the dude. he had as much soul as anyone, in his own way.

5:21 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

Sorry to message this way. I thought you might have heard of a bizarre Xmas album Dylan is planning. He can't pull this crap twice. 1979 was bad enough:
http://www.bobdylanisis.com/Dylan%20Digest.htm

3:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it has the power of Slow Train Coming i will be very interested indeed-I have no need to agree with his opinions/religious beliefs.That is not what I seek when I tune in

5:00 pm  
Anonymous gracenotes said...

Very well told, capturing beautifully the bizarre cloud cuckoo land in which these people spend their lives. The hugging stuff is especially interesting. When I was growing up in Scotland in the 1950s/60s, you didn't have physical contact with someone unless you were married to them, or were their doctor. Now my daughter and her friends hug each other if they not going to see each other for an hour or so.

7:06 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

My only issue with the 80s Dylan is a function of his genius. He had so much power in his music, lyrical genius and original insight into the world that his early 1980s period couldn't help but be a significant drop in what had been a kind of ascendancy toward greatness as an artist. I think Michael refers to it as a period of coasting in Song and Dance Man. You couldn't help but feel that when you compare the Gospel tour, circa 1980, to what he had been doing a few years before. I've never fully understood how his poetic vision collapsed despite the Christian music's vitality and drive. Thankfully, he recovered in the early 90s and secretly wrote some stunning songs in the 80s such as McTell and Caribbean Wind, not to mention a stunner or do on weaker albums and collections. Somehow, a momentous river went largely into some mysterious underground watershed for a decade. His finesse and skill as an artist made it possible to carry on and even stay above the fray with flashes of brilliance. Then, inexplicably, the water rose and a stunning, older, sober, hardened sage emerged intact. Breathtaking however you look at it.

10:10 pm  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

Sounds like Waylon had the right idea.

11:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not a Christian. When I hear the power of 'When he Returns' & 'Precious Angel'; I hear a very direct, honest & deep expression of fear,insecurity, longing & pain. These are present in his earlier work, but veiled & mediated through and by, a protective cynicism. This cynicism returned and has become more pronounced, dominant & cliched in recent years-like a hardened habit. Rather than sensing, looking & reporting back in remarkable,creative ways, he appears to be resting/hiding, most of the time, under the odd persona
he has used for about the last 10 years. For example: 'Things have Changed' I knew the sentiments & path of this song from hearing the first line. Whilst I do enjoy his recent work, it is a little like the way I have some quiet pleasure in wearing an old,worn out coat.

9:03 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Nicely put, and carefully delineated all the way through: which is why the comparison ends up sounding just slightly unfair to the old coat.

11:17 am  

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