How George Harrison Brought Bob Dylan Back With The Concert For Bangladesh
Bob Dylan at the Concert for Bangladesh, August 1, 1971. Photo by Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News via Getty Images.
On August 1, 1971, Bob Dylan made his first live appearance in two years at the Concert for Bangladesh. After some serious arm twisting by George Harrison, Dylan came out of semi-retirement and played classics that he hadn’t performed in years. Before the concert for Bangladesh, Dylan was out of commission for a half a decade following a motorcycle accident in 1966 that put him in semi-retirement. At the same time, George Harrison was in his own live-music exile, following The Beatles' demise as a live act. Dylan’s performance should have been abysmal, instead he walked on stage in front of 40,000 people and absolutely killed it.
Dylan disappeared in 1966
By 1971 Bob Dylan was a kind of rock n roll ghost. After the motorcycle accident that put an early end to his 1966 tour for Blonde on Blonde he disappeared to upstate New York to raise a family and hide from overzealous fans. Performances by the singer were scant, with the only real performance of interest occurring at the Isle of White Festival in 1969 with The Band.
Aside from a few spotty performances Dylan was semi-retired from touring even though he was still working on music, between 1967 and 1970 he released for albums, including the groundbreaking “Nashville Skyline.” Even with his steady output he wasn’t keen on getting back to the stage.
With the Concert for Bangladesh George Harrison invented the all-star charity show
Over dinner in early 1971, Ravi Shankar told George Harrison about the millions of people who were displaced during the Bangladesh Liberation War, many of whom were killed in the wake of the Bhola cyclone in 1970. Shankar initially wanted to raise $25,000 for the refugees, and Harrison thought that the best way to make that happen was with a charity concert stacked with as many of his famous friends as possible. He didn’t know it, but George Harrison was inventing the kind of star studded charity event that became regular money makers for every kind of cause you can imagine.
Dylan was the secret centerpiece of the show
With George Harrison at the helm of the Concert for Bangladesh it wasn’t hard to get people on board. Levon Helms, Billy Preston, and a heroin addled Eric Clapton all eagerly agreed to appear on the show (along with Ringo Starr and obviously Ravi Shankar), but Harrison wanted Dylan to show up and perform some of the protest songs that were so important to their generation.
Dylan wasn’t sure about appearing on the two-show concert (Harrison scheduled a matinee and an evening show), and even though he told the former-Beatle that he’d be on stage no one was sure if the enigmatic folk singer would actually show up.
Rehearsals went on without Dylan
There were two big question marks surrounding the Concert for Bangladesh - Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Clapton was in the middle of a major heroin problem at the time and no one knew if he was going to show up or just bop around New York City trying to score. Dylan was the biggest concern. The show would be fine without him - he wasn’t advertised - but his aura would lend an importance to the event, more than Ravi Shankar, and more than George Harrison.
Dylan was a no show to rehearsals and run throughs until the final soundcheck on July 31. He and Clapton both made a brief appearance to get their equipment sorted out a day before the big show where Dylan expressed second thoughts about playing his old songs in front of such a large audience. When Harrison insisted that Dylan at least play “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan asked if he was going to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The best Harrison could do was remind Dylan that he’s played in front of massive crowds before, and that out of everyone on the bill he was the most suited to be there.
Dylan’s set made people believe in him again
The Concert for Bangladesh had two sections: the first was all classical Indian music lead by Ravi Shankar, and then second part was the “western” set that featured George Harrison, Billy Preston and Ringo Star. After Harrison performed a few songs (including “Here Comes The Sun”) he started to get antsy, Bob Dylan was supposed to show up but so far he was a no show.
But then Harrison looked around and saw Dylan standing in the wings with a guitar strapped around him and his sunglasses on. Harrison was just as surprised as the audience, if not more. Dylan played some of the defining songs of the ‘60s: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", "Blowin' in the Wind", "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry", "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and "Just Like a Woman,” with Harrison backing him on the bass and Ringo Starr playing the tambourine. No one ever thought Dylan would ever play these songs again, and there he was pouring his heart out to thousands of people.
As much as Dylan loved performing at the Concert for Bangladesh it would be almost three years before he hit the road again to take his music to the masses.
Tags: Bob Dylan | Concerts | George Harrison | Ringo Starr | Concert For Bangladesh
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