Looking Back: Bob Dylan “Soy Bomb” Grammy Awards performance from 1998

Bob Dylan and Soy Bomb dancer Michael Portnoy at 1998 Grammy Awards

As all of us Bob Dylan fans eagerly await his return to the Grammy stage tonight where he will perform alongside the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons, we can’t help but reminisce over Bob’s long resume of surreal and sometimes downright bizarre special event appearances. Who could forget his unintelligible performance of “Masters of War” at the 1991 Grammy awards followed the same night with his seemingly drunken acceptance speech after being handed the Lifetime Achievement Award by Jack Nicholson:

“Well,” he said, “my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said” (long pause) “he say, you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.”

And then he walked off.

And I remember anticipating his performance on the 1992 Late Night With David Letterman 10-Year Anniversary Special during which Bob half-heartedly sang through “Like A Rolling Stone” in front of a preposterously huge all-star ensemble that included Chrissie Hynde, Steve Vai, Carole King, Edgar Winter, Jim Keltner, Roseanne Cash, Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Michelle Shocked, Mavis Staples, the James Brown horn section, Doc Severinsen plus Paul Shaffer’s “The World’s Most Dangerous Band.” I looked over at my college roommate at the time and said, “What the hell was that?!?” He responded. “I don’t know, but Bob Dylan is sooooo awesome!” “Yeah,” I said.

Paul Schaffer would later recount a conversation with Dylan during rehearsals for the performance in which Dylan refused to sing. “I don’t need this band to play my music,” Bob said. “Me, I got four pieces. That’s all I need. All this other stuff don’t make no sense.”

Here’s a rough audience recording of one of the rehearsals:

“But there’s no way I can compare, All those scenes to this affair,” with “this affair” being Bob’s performance at the 1998 Grammy awards!

Bob Dylan had been nominated for Album of the Year (which he later won) for his relentless lyrical epic on lost love Time Out Of Mind. In a rare change of pace, Bob seemed to be taking the nomination seriously. As he said in his acceptance speech later in the evening, “In the words of, you know, the immortal Robert Johnson, ‘the stuff we got’ll bust your brains out’, and we tried to get that across…”

Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind album cover

So Bob was set to deliver a straight-forward performance of the “single” “Love Sick,” a slow-paced atmospheric take on the nihilistic malaise of heartbreak with a musical break inspired by Dire Straits’ “News.” (Fast forward to the 1:10 mark to hear the “Love Sick” break.)

The only bit of extra fanfare on the number were a few dancers hired by the Grammys to stand behind Dylan and bob their heads to the music to “give Bob a good vibe.” One of those hired dancers was performance artist Michael Portnoy, who seized the opportunity and literally stole the spotlight by stripping off his shirt revealing the words “SOY BOMB” painted on his chest before running up beside Bob Dylan and flailing about wildly.

Bob looked over at Portnoy and seemed almost taken aback for just a moment, but he literally didn’t miss a beat as he sang on. Eventually there was a vocal break and Bob stepped back from the microphone at which point the Grammy Awards security removed Portnoy from the stage. Afterward, Bob plowed on.

Here’s a pared-down version with just the soy bombegery:

And an apparent re-recording of the performance sans soy bomb:

From Wikipedia:

When questioned by reporters, Portnoy said, “Soy… represents dense nutritional life. Bomb is, obviously, an explosive destructive force. So, soy bomb is what I think art should be: dense, transformational, explosive life” according to Entertainment Weekly and that “he meant Soy Bomb as a ‘spontaneous explosion of the self’ to re-invigorate the current music scene. He has also said that the phrase is a combination of Spanish and English, meaning “the bomb of ‘I am'” The Grammy Awards chose not to press charges against Portnoy for the act, but did decline to pay Portnoy’s $200 fee for the dancing gig.

It’s almost as though reality wouldn’t allow Bob Dylan to perform on a stage like that without something weird happening. For that reason, I literally cannot wait for tonight! Please oh please say Bob walks the red carpet! I want to see him interviewed by Ryan Seacrest!

***Special Note – If you purchase the import single for “Love Sick” it has the live version of the song from the 1998 Grammy Awards performance and it is nothing short of BADASS! Sure, there was a shirtless guy with “SOY BOMB” painted across his chest flailing about madly right beside the singer, but let’s not forget that Bob performed some stuff that’ll bust your brains out!

Just in case your brains weren’t busted out, Bob partnered with Victoria’s Secret to add a little T&A to the Daniel Lanois atmospherics for this undeniably vicious “Lust Sick” commercial: