The 40th annual Grammy Awards were shaping up to be a celebration not only of the best music of 1997, but an industry pat-on-the-back due to soaring album sales. Since the advent of the MTV’s VMAs in 1984, the Grammys took a backseat to the younger, hipper show. For Gen X, the Grammys were the music awards show for your parents — not your friends. The show’s image had been relatively bland for years, then it caught a ratings break. Hosted by Kelsey Grammar, the Feb. 25, 1998 event melded the overdue recognition of hip-hop on a mass level to its usual array of categories, and the improbable return of a rock legend.
Bob Dylan nearly died and subsequently made his best album in in nearly two decades.
Unlike the 1966 motorcycle accident that sidelined him for two years and shrouded his existence in mystery, Dylan faced a different type of ailment. In May 1997, Dylan landed in a New York-area hospital suffering from histoplasmosis, a potentially fatal infection which creates swelling in the sac which surrounds the heart. Unlike the incident that saw him hide in Upstate New York, the notoriously sharped-tongued singer quipped wryly that he “really thought [he’d] be seeing Elvis soon.” Instead, he was creatively reborn.
1997’s Time Out Of Mind was hailed as Dylan’s triumphant return; the album’s cryptic, yet honest take on mortality (coincidentally, the collection was recorded prior to his hospitalization), along with a hazy blend of bluesy, country rock was Dylan’s way of showing he wasn’t ready to fade into old age, death or even worse, obscurity, quite yet. The Grammys, naturally, took notice. Dylan’s 41st album scored four nominations, including Album of the Year. With these nods in mind, the notoriously private Dylan agreed to perform at the ceremony with his band.
Throughout his career, Dylan has been known for his unorthodox performing style. Whether it be battling audiences at the peak of his powers in 1966, rolling through a revue in the mid-‘70s or preaching Christianity at the end of that decade, Dylan was known to thrill and baffle audiences, often at the same time. So when it was announced that he’d be performing at the Grammys, fans were abuzz. It was un-Dylan like to acknowledge such a ceremony — nevertheless take part in the pomp and circumstance.
At the time of the 1998 Grammys, Dylan was deeply entrenched in his Never Ending Tour — which continues today. Dylan loyalists had their corner of the internet, and speculation was abuzz for what he would perform. The even money was on “Love Sick,” while “Cold Irons Bound” and the album’s other single, “Not Dark Yet,” which was debatably the album’s centerpiece, was the other favorite. But while Dylan fans clogged message boards ahead of his performance, debating what he’d song play, the night was already headed in an auspicious direction.
Earlier in the night, Puff Daddy’s No Way Out scored a victory in the Best Rap Album category, which earned scorn from Wu-Tang Clan, in particular, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. As Shawn Colvin was about to give her victory speech after winning Song of the Year, ODB crashed the stage and launched into his now iconic speech declaring “Wu-Tang for the children… Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best.”
After taking home several less-heralded awards, in particular for Best Male Rock Performance for “Cold Irons Bound” and Best Contemporary Folk Album, Dylan hopped on the Radio City Music Hall stage to perform “Love Sick” as part of the cagey rock bard’s remarkable return to relevance. In front of a group of twenty-something background dancers, Dylan and company marauded through a fiery version of the album’s first song. Sporting a sparkling silver suit like a ghoulish lounge singer who would have been more at home in Beetlejuice.
Midway through the song, however, things took a sharp turn towards the unexpected. The dancers continued to bob their heads and wobble in the background like robotic zombies while Dylan led the stampede. But one dancer had another idea.
During the middle of the song, a man wiggled out from the background risers, spastically ripped his shirt off to reveal the phrase “Soy Bomb” and danced alongside the singer. He danced for an unimpeded 40 seconds before being ushered off-stage. Incredibly, outside of shooting a befuddled glance Soy Bomb’s way, Dylan was nonplussed, and continued without incident. Cameras were locked in on the mysterious dancer because of his proximity to the singer, and, well, it was too bizarre to miss.