25 years ago today, an almost unbelievable lineup of rock, folk, country, and soul legends took the stage at Madison Square Garden for what might have been the greatest tribute concert of all time. It was Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, an event scheduled to celebrate the three-decade mark of Dylan’s self-titled 1962 debut album. Broadcast live in a syndicated radio program and later released as an album and concert video, the concert culminated in a megajam: Dylan joining forces with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Roger McGuinn, and Tom Petty for “My Back Pages.”
The concert also made headlines for an incident involving Sinéad O’Connor, fresh off her infamous Saturday Night Live performance in which she tore a picture of Pope John Paul II. When she took the stage to cover Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” the crowd booed her away and she walked offstage after reciting lyrics from Bob Marley’s “War.”
Radio veteran Dan Neer was there, both backstage and in the audience as he hosted the syndicated radio broadcast. I caught up with Neer by phone this morning, and asked him to think back on that momentous night a quarter-century ago — as well as to reflect on the career of an artist who’s still vital and still touring. (In fact, Dylan will be in St. Paul next week.)
Jay Gabler: Take me back to 1992. Where were you professionally, and how did you end up getting involved with the broadcast?
Dan Neer: I’ve always been fortunate. I worked in New York City radio my entire life, starting right out of college almost. At the time I was in the middle of a 20-year run at WNEW FM, which was the rock station forever in New York. It was one of the original progressive rock stations, and had held out in terms of format forever, thankfully. At the same time, I’d always been interested in interviewing artists, and I formed my own production company back in 1979. What we did was produce interview music radio specials — which I still do to this day.
The company that I went into business with at the time, we all negotiated for the rights to this concert that was coming up. We won [the rights], and we made it a non-exclusive special for all radio stations across America to carry this concert — because obviously it was a momentous occasion with an incredible lineup of artists, and back in those days, commercial radio actually appreciated that content. My production company was brought in to do interviews, to carry the concert live across the country, and then subsequently — about a year later, when the CDs came out of the show, to create a national special to support the sales of the CDs.
So it was pretty clear as this was coming together that this was going to be, really, a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of artists. Not the average tribute concert.
Well, when you see the names — you know, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Sinéad O’Connor, Johnny Winter, on and on and on. Mellencamp. Stevie Wonder. It was just amazing, and at the time, Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready…Pearl Jam had just released their first album, and they were hot, but they weren’t legendary like they are now. So it was just really exciting, the blend of artists. They were really well-chosen, and the proof is in the pudding. Those performances, my god.
Where were you sitting during the show itself?
The entire week before the show, they had rehearsals in two places in the city. One was at S.I.R. Sound Studios, and the other was in Queens, on a soundstage there that they used. So we were going to all the different rehearsals to interview the artists, and I had seen some amazing things in rehearsal already. So for the show, you’re there all day, through the last bit of soundchecks and stuff like that, and you’re dealing with people.
We wound up, for the broadcast, sitting in a pretty good area…I want to say off the stage at a 45º angle, in a little box with headphones next to a mixing thing for the radio, because we were doing all this live. Taking the feed from the sound truck, and commenting on it and trying not to interrupt in a crucial moment by mistake. So we had pretty good seats. Just the section off the floor, 45º angle, if you’re facing the stage it would be to the left. It was one amazing night, just trying to keep up with it all.
I recorded that broadcast off the radio, and I was glad I kept those tapes, because it turned out to be a really unique document that had some music you couldn’t get on the later commercial releases.
Yeah. Although now, they put out an anniversary reissue with a DVD and they included a couple of those performances in there — like Sinéad O’Connor in rehearsal, doing that song that she got booed off the stage for. She was originally going to do a Bob Dylan song, and then she wound up quoting the Marley song. That really marred the event for me. She’d just been on Saturday Night Live and tore up a picture of the Pope. Religious people went nuts. Me? I thought, well, this is America, you can do that if you choose. I was very disappointed [in] the crowd, the way they booed her.
So you thought it really was a decidedly negative reaction — it wasn’t just a couple of people.
No, it was overwhelming. I thought there might be a couple of people, but it turned out it was really loud. I tried to talk with her, because I just felt so bad for her, but she wasn’t talking to anybody.
Have you been thinking back on that moment now in recent weeks, as she’s opened up about her mental health struggles and everything she’s been going through over the years?
When you approached me to do this [interview], I started thinking about that a little bit. It was really the first memory that came rushing by, and I thought to myself, that’s a horrible thing to stand out…but it shows the intolerance of people. Now, yes, when you think of it in the context of her mental health issues and stuff she went through, you think, oh my goodness, how deep that must have scarred her.
You had an interesting role during that broadcast, because the event didn’t stop for commercials — so you would have to go to commercial, and then when we came back, you would have to recap and describe what was happening. That Sinéad O’Connor performance was one of those that happened during the commercial, so we came back and…
You could probably hear, I was very upset for her, and very disappointed…and then trying to remember, what song was she quoting there? It’s “War,” by Bob Marley. That’s the song she quoted as she was just about to leave the stage.
And you say it marred the event in the sense that the public’s reaction distracted from the celebration of Dylan?
That ruined it for me at the time, but it was relatively early in the show. I think Mellencamp had been on, Stevie Wonder, I think Eddie and Mike had…it was just very upsetting, but then the overwhelming joy of the performers did transcend it. That unfortunately was my first memory, but then as I started thinking back about the rehearsals I had been at, and the actual performances…the songs were just amazing, and in the hands of these incredible artists, brought out even better than the original Dylan songs.
I happen to be a fan of Bob Dylan, but there are those who say they can’t get past his voice…which blows me away, but then taking these incredible songs and then putting them in the hands of artists who did their own interpretations, like Clapton doing that bluesy version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” was just amazing. Eric was at his peak around then. He’d been [drug-free] for a number of years, he was playing the best he’d ever played, except he kept getting better over the years. Then seeing a lineup of all of them onstage, as they’re doing the finales….”My Back Pages” with Dylan, McGuinn, Petty, Neil Young, Clapton, and Harrison, it was like, oh my god.
I’d seen that in rehearsal. We were at the S.I.R. soundstage there, and there were rooms where artists were rehearsing. I was able to walk into the room where they were rehearsing “My Back Pages,” with all of them lined up across the room. The only other people in the room, aside from the roadies and people that were doing technical stuff, were me and Eddie Vedder. We sat down on the floor across from them, watching this, and he looks at me and goes, “Can you believe we’re seeing this?” I said to him, I can’t believe you’re sitting next to me! Hell, this is incredible!
Was there a sense of the respect and excitement there, among them onstage?
Oh, yeah. You could see them all having fun. They loved being with each other. Some of these people are dear, dear friends, and in the artist world, your friends are oftentimes the people you bump into in airports as you’re going to one gig and they’re coming and doing the same venue or something the next day. So oftentimes they don’t get to spend any quality time with each other, but this was something where they were in town for the week, basically, and out of respect for Bob they all wanted to do an extraordinary job. Basically, they all did.
Those biggest names were super exciting, but some of the other artists who weren’t quite on that Rushmore of rock also turned in really exciting performances.
I think Johnny Winter killed on “Highway 61 Revisited.” June and Johnny Cash doing “It Ain’t Me Babe,” I loved that. Maybe they’re not what you’d call “superstars,” but they are! Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter. A band like the O’Jays. These, to me, are all incredible people. They’re all superstars. Kris Kristofferson. To me, these are vital people, and they all had something to do in Bob Dylan’s career. It was such a well-done evening. It couldn’t have come off much better, with the exception of the Sinéad O’Connor thing.
It turned into a really interesting Bob Dylan moment, too.
He was nervous as shit! He was an emotional wreck! Dylan is a fascinating character. George Harrison told me a fascinating story once. Bob Dylan made that very famous appearance at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. This was one of the first benefits thrown by a rock star to help a situation. Bob was there in rehearsal, and George says, “So, you coming?” Bob says, “Eh, it’s really not my thing.” So George said he didn’t even know if Bob was going to show up, and the only time he knew Dylan was there was when he saw him in the wings at the concert when George was playing.
Bob is just one of those unique characters that travels to the beat of his own drum…but that particular night [at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration], all of his contemporaries, people he admired, were all playing. He was worried that he wouldn’t live up to the standard they set! He was nervous! So it was interesting…when he first came on, it was like, whoa, where is this voice coming from? Right? Did you get that impression yourself?
I thought it was a powerful performance, but I was also impressed by his choice of songs. To go right back to “Song for Woody,” paying tribute to his influence, and then going dark with “It’s Alright, Ma,” when most of the performers had not been mining a lot of that darker side of his catalog…
Yeah, but then he did “Girl from the North Country” too. But you’re right, doing those particular songs…I think Bob has always [had] an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and of course he paid tribute to his influences, as all these artists were also paying tribute to him. I had one interview with Bob, and it was one of the weirdest experiences I ever had, yet it was great.
Was that associated with this concert?
No, it was done a couple of years before it — for the Oh Mercy album, which was a tremendous record of his. But [the concert] was a fitting tribute to who I call the poet laureate of American music. It’s been staggering, the songs he has written, performed, and done, the changes he has gone through, how people always write and talk about him without ever getting to really peer behind the curtain much.
In your behind-the-scenes role, did you have a sense…when you say Dylan was nervous, did you have a sense of that from the way he was acting or things that he said?
I didn’t get to talk to him, so I can only tell you from a distance. In rehearsals it looked like he was enjoying himself immensely, and I gotta believe that he was having a good time at the concert, but he was just a little nervous as to living up to what had gone before him. Awards and honors and stuff…I don’t know what it means to him. The Nobel Prize? Does he really care about that stuff much? To us it’s a tremendous honor, and you want to honor a man that’s given us so many great songs. If you grew up in the ’60s, it was like a soundtrack to what you were doing at the time, or at least what a certain amount of people were doing at the time. It’s been a joy following him through all his changes, and whatever critics write, I don’t care. Whatever people say, I don’t care. I’ve admired him for a long time.
Wikipedia tells me there was an afterparty at Tommy Makem’s bar. Did you go, or did you know about it?
No, at the end of that concert I was so exhausted. The amount of work that goes on is incredible; we were putting in 18-20 hour days the whole week, and the day of the concert, you’re up at seven, eight in the morning and you’re going until 12 at night and you’re on adrenaline only. By the time that show was over, I just wanted to crawl into bed. I have no idea whether I was even asked to go or not. I think we were, because I think a couple of the producers I was working with went. I’m not sure.
It’s interesting to think that this concert celebrated 30 years — which seemed like a long time, and certainly was an incredible accomplishment, but here we are now 25 years later. If you think back to trying to imagine what Bob Dylan’s career would look like in 2017, from your desk in 1992, could you have imagined what he’s done since then?
You know, the songs he was putting out then were still incredible, so I knew he was going to keep going for a while. Whether I would have said another 25 years…there are blues artists who kept going until they were 80, and I would have thought him capable just because of his writing. I don’t think your writing diminishes with age until you get either senile or have some sort of issue. I probably would have thought, yeah, he’ll still be around, he’ll still be writing things. I wouldn’t have thought he’ll still be touring. These boxes that are coming out, giving even more insight into how his songs developed and how hard he worked on arrangements and changed them and kept doing things with them, I think are fascinating insights into how hard he works.