Bob Dylan honored at Chasen's?
The setting alone provided some culture shock Monday night: Dylan, for years the symbol of a defiant, questioning spirit, and the West Hollywood restaurant, a longtime citadel of the show-biz establishment.
But the approximately 100 guests represented an equally striking mix of eras and attitudes at an American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers reception saluting the 44-year-old singer-songwriter.
As longtime ASCAP songwriters stood by in suits and ties, Dylan--wearing motorcycle boots, leather pants and a white T-shirt under his loose-fitting black sport coat--accepted the Founders Award from ASCAP President Hal David.
To millions of rock fans in the '60s, Dylan represented a break from the traditional songwriting mold epitomized by an industry power like ASCAP.
Yet Dylan sought graciously to bring the two eras together in a brief acceptance speech.
"I'd like to feel like I'm (accepting this) for a lot of people who started out in rock . . . and folk music," he said standing at a podium, squinting in the glare of TV lights and flashbulbs.
"We never claimed to be as good as Johnny Mercer or Hal David or Jerome Kern or any of those people. We just used that medium to write what we were feeling."
He then quoted the lines from a 1929 song that one of his own heroes, Elvis Presley, once cited in accepting an award:
Without a song, the day would never end.
Without a song, the road would never bend.
When things go wrong, a man ain't got a friend, without a song.
But what is a Dylan public appearance without a few sparks?
Though publicist Norman Winter instructed the assembled writers and TV crews that this was to be a presentation, not a press conference, reporters couldn't resist shouting questions at Dylan.
One caught Dylan's ear: Is music as meaningful today as it was in the '60s?
"Not really," Dylan responded softly.
Warming up to the topic, he added, "But I think it's going to change."
Asked to explain why, he said, "People are going to get sick of it."
And, there was a flash of Dylan humor.
The curly-haired songwriter just stared into the bank of TV lights when someone asked him about "the future . . . where do you go from here?"
Finally, he smiled slightly and quipped, "I'm just going home."
The Founders Award--whose only previous recipient was Stevie Wonder in 1984--is designed to salute innovators and trend-setters whose songs change the direction of pop music.
Because Dylan has been hailed by critics for years as the most influential songwriter of the modern pop era, this type of ASCAP recognition was as obviously overdue as the lifetime achievement award that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences handed out recently to the Rolling Stones.
Asked what he meant when he said he was accepting the award for other writers, he explained, "People like Hank Williams . . . Jimmy Reed . . . Muddy Waters. They should have gotten awards like this too."
Dylan also made it clear he meant it when he praised the traditional ASCAP writers. "I really respect what those guys did," he said, sitting at his table. "They wrote some great songs . . . What song on the radio today is better than 'What a Difference a Day Makes' or 'Strange Fruit' . . . I'll give you a million dollars if you could find a better song. . . ."
On a roll, Dylan snapped that most record makers today think that all they need to know about music is how to "push a button" on a rhythm machine.
There were so many music and movie celebrities at the reception before the award presentation that it seemed like backstage at one of the current rash of all-star benefit concerts. The guests ranged from musicians, such as Richie Havens and Leonard Cohen, who go back years with Dylan, to those who have simply admired his work for the last quarter-century.
"Hi, I'm Bob Seger," the bearded rocker said, sticking his hand out to Dylan.
"Sure, how ya doin' ," Dylan replied, smiling warmly. "Here," he said, introducing Seger's attention to the famous woman on Dylan's left. "Meet Elizabeth Taylor."
Among others on hand: Neil Young, Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, Whoopi Goldberg, George Michael, Donny Osmond, Michael McDonald and Chrissie Hynde.
The ASCAP staff was hoping to keep the media-shy Dylan at Chasen's for at least 30 minutes, so everyone was surprised that he stuck around for nearly three hours after the 7 p.m. ceremony. Except for one tense moment when a TV crew tried to muscle its way into the private reception area to get a shot of Dylan and Taylor seated together at a table, things were surprisingly smooth.
Just back from a well-received tour of Japan and Australia with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dylan appeared relaxed and said he was already looking forward to going out on the road this summer in the United States. He's expected to do some dates with Petty and others with the Grateful Dead.
By 9 p.m., most of the guests had headed for home, but a couple dozen people sat cloistered around Dylan and Havens as the pair passed a guitar back and forth and reminisced about their old club days.
Finally, Havens began softly singing "Just Like a Woman," one of Dylan's best-known tunes. Dylan closed his eyes and swayed gently from side to side as Havens repeated the lines from so long ago:
Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain .
Then, Havens surprised Dylan by singing one of Dylan's most recent compositions, "License to Kill."
When the song was finished, Dylan said, "I didn't know you had heard that."
Havens flashed a quick smile, "Oh, I'm always out there listening."
For all the talk about Dylan as the controversial spokesman and mercurial force, two things have remained constants: his love for music and his ability to express himself in songs.
During a quiet moment, Havens delivered what may have been the most touching tribute of the evening.
In researching Dylan's song catalogue to develop notes for the presentation, an ASCAP staff member discovered that there have been 2,500 "cover" versions of Dylan songs (recordings of his tunes by other artists).
When someone mentioned that figure, Havens said, "Oh, no. That's not right. There have been three million . . . three million. "
Havens was referring to all the musicians who have sung Dylan songs on stages and street corners and subway tunnels throughout the world.
Dylan, who seemed to have had an answer for everything earlier in the evening, was suddenly quiet. Perhaps the enormous impact of his music was hard for even him to comprehend.