Remember When: Bob Dylan Salvaged a Shaky Live Aid Performance by Suggesting Farm Aid

Even in the middle of a decade where he struggled to find his musical footing at times, Bob Dylan was still revered to the point where he was chosen as one of the headline performers for the massive Live Aid concerts. Oddly enough, a bit of stage patter that he gave during his performance on July 13, 1985, in Philadelphia was far more memorable than anything he sang that evening.

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In the midst of a listless three-song set while accompanied by a pair of Rolling Stones, an offhand comment between songs ended up having a lasting impact. Here’s the story of how Dylan suggested a separate benefit concert while smack-dab in the middle of another one.

Dylan to Close

It says something about Bob Dylan’s reputation among his peers that he was chosen as the closing performer for the Philadelphia portion of the Live Aid concert in 1985. Dylan had just released the album Empire Burlesque in June. The album baffled critics and didn’t do much sales-wise, continuing a disturbing downward spiral for him in the decade. (By the way, we think Empire Burlesque deserved better, but it was trendy for critics to pick on Dylan no matter what he did back then.)

But he had performed on the “We Are the World” single that helped spark Live Aid, getting a long solo within the song that also said something about his status. As Jack Nicholson’s fawning introduction at Live Aid made clear, the guy was as hallowed as they come in the music world for what he had done throughout his career, regardless of his recent struggles.

To add to the excitement, Dylan corralled Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood to play on stage with him. This was a bit awkward, as Mick Jagger, who was promoting his solo record and in a tiff with Richards at the time, performed right before the men in Philly. Still, it seemed like Dylan and the two guitarists would make for a perfect way to close out the evening before the big finale with all artists returning to the stage. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

A Performance Gone Awry

To be fair, there were performances at the Live Aid concerts that were even more wayward than the one offered by Dylan, Wood, and Richards. (The Led Zeppelin “reunion” in London, with Phil Collins on drums, was such a train wreck the band has gone to great lengths to ensure nobody can watch it even today.) But right from the start, it was clear the Dylan performance was going to be anticlimactic at best.

For one, the stadium setting was a bit too vast for an acoustic performance to really hit home, especially as the men dealt with feedback issues as they played. On top of that, it’s not really clear what Richards and Wood brought to the table, since all they were really doing was strumming along with Dylan. Wood did come in handy once when Dylan snapped a string on his guitar, handing his over to Dylan before a crew member came in with a replacement.

The guitars also seemed out of tune at times. Even “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which you would think would have been a crowd-pleaser, was disjointed. (Dylan also played “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “When the Ship Comes in” that night.) Chances are the set would have been nothing more than a footnote, if not for Dylan’s strange knack for making cultural waves even when not intending to do so.

For the Farmers

Right before kicking into “When the Ship Comes in,” Dylan, in halting fashion, said the following: “I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa, maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe one or two million, maybe, and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms that the farmers here owe to the banks.”

Bob Geldof, who organized the concerts, was furious at Dylan for what he felt was an attempt to steer the evening’s focus away from Ethiopian famine relief. Still, the remark received applause when he said it, and it ended up striking a chord with some famous folks who heard him say it.

Two months after Dylan stumbled through Live Aid, he was back on stage in front of a massive crowd again, this time at the inaugural Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois. That’s right: It was his comment that lit a fire under Farm Aid’s organizers John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young. And on that latter occasion, Dylan, backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, delivered a killer set.

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Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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