Few artists confound audiences like Bob Dylan. In fact, a whole academic field, Dylanology, has sprung up to make sense of his exhaustive body of work. Dylan may be deserving of such attention after recently winning a Nobel Prize and his role in popular culture, for example, playing his anti-war hymn “Blowing in the Wind” minutes before Martin Luther King gave his famed “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC. Dylan gave a voice and a melody to the counter-culture. His artistic influences came from the free-wheeling Beat Generation, at one point inviting Alan Ginsburg on tour with him.
Fujirockers recently spoke to Mr. Toshiyuki “Heckel” Sugano who was an A&R man for CBS/Sony and producer of the album Bob Dylan at Budokan, and Humbert Humbert vocalist, Ryosei Sato. The two are devoted fans and the closest thing to Dylanologists that we could find.
Heckel has compiled a distinguished track record looking after artists such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for CBS/Sony, later starting his own publishing company called Seven Days Press which mainly focused on Dylan, contributing most of the liner notes for Bob Dylan albums.
“Dylan only had about one-tenth the fans when compared to the Beatles. I was drawn to him because of my interest in folk, which was quite popular at the time in Japan. Many were also listening to Joan Baez and others. “Blowing in the Wind” was popular and I was drawn to his voice, which wasn’t that beautiful, but you could identify with it and it was moving. This was especially true for me as I was just a high school student at the time,” says Heckel.
Dylan rose to prominence through folk music which was immensely popular in the sixties in America. However, the genre was overwhelmingly comprised of Caucasian musicians and white audiences who favored melody and harmony above all else, which did not reflect the changing times and a greater diversity amongst audiences.
“Harmony was the basis for much of music in those days. Everything was beautiful melody such as Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, etc. There was nothing like Dylan’s songs on the radio at the time. From the first time I heard it, I loved it.”
“There was so little information at that time. I was in junior high school or high school and I just wrote a letter to Nippon Columbia to release more albums and works by Bob Dylan.”
For music aficionados, the early days of Japan’s recording industry were pretty haphazard and it was quite common for labels to simply press compilation albums rather than full-length records produced by the artist. Heckel implored Nippon Columbia to release Bob Dylan records as they were recorded by the artist.
As for Humbert Humbert vocalist Mr. Ryosei Sato, who came of age many generations later, he discovered Dylan on his own, far removed from the hype machine of major media.
“Different generations are so different. My favorite album of his is Desire which was released in 1967. And then in junior high school, there was no internet and Dylan is not in fashion, so there is not any information as well. I then bought John Wesley Harding. I just had to listen to this record beginning until end. I liked it because Dylan is cool.”
Despite heavy promotion in Japan, Dylan’s albums were not selling well considering his fame overseas. It wasn’t until the hit “Hurricane” and “One More Cup Of Coffee” from called Desire, which was his first big hit of his albums in Japan and sold more than 200,000 copies.
Soon after his breakthrough album in Japan, local fans would be treated to a visit from Dylan, who would also record Bob Dylan at Budokan.
Heckel was the main impetus behind the 1978 album Bob Dylan at Budokan. As an A&R man for CBS/SONY, he initially pitched the idea of recording Dylan at a time when it was trendy for artists to come to Japan to record a live album. Other live recordings that he has overseen included those such as Donovan.
“Yes, it was my plan to record a live show. I thought that I would never get permission at first, but he was OK to start negotiations and we eventually got the OK,” said Heckel.
He added that Dylan’s management was very supportive of the project, but the decision was ultimately up to Dylan and this didn’t come until after the artist arrived in Japan prior to the Tokyo show.
Heckel met with Bob Dylan when he arrived on February 18th to discuss the live recording and receive official permission to go through with the project. At the time, it was customary to give artists final say over live recording projects.
As it turns out, the recording was scheduled to take place over three days but only 2 days of recording were completed. Dylan called off the final day of recording. A total of five hours of tape were recorded, which was eventually was transformed into a double LP.
Heckel says Dylan’s live recording was done on two side by side four-channel recorders with only 8 channels available. Of course it wasn’t enough as Dylan had two dedicated channels devoted to himself. Despite the simplicity of the system, Heckel believes his team did a good job with the recording considering the technology at the time.
Later, the mixing, track listing and art work was done in Japan. Typically, foreign artists bring the tapes back with them to do this work. However, Heckel soon found himself overseeing all this work, including the tough task of filling up album sides with as much music as possible whilst being mindful that most records are under 26 minutes a side to prevent the stylus from jumping.
Heckel thought the project was very important and sought out the best technicians he could find. He also tried to model the sound close to Dylan’s previous live album Hard Rain, which was released in 1976, two years before the Budokan performance.
After all of the mixing was done, Heckel flew to LA where Bob Dylan was giving a series of shows. He had a lacquer board of the album and 2 types of sleeve design. One version had a sleeve photo of Dylan smiling which was rejected. Each side of the album was almost 30 minutes in length as Heckel had slotted in as much music as possible.
In LA, Heckel met with Dylan face to face to check the album. He finally got the OK to go ahead and release the record. Heckel believes that this was one of the greatest achievements of his life as he oversaw all aspects of the Budokan recording which would go on to become a big hit in the US, topping the charts at number 15.
Heckel would also go on to become a lifelong Dylan fan, never missing a performance when the artist visited Japan. He would even attend a few overseas shows as well, paying special note to the musicians Dylan performed with and the set-list, which used to change frequently, though in recent years has become fairly settled. Heckel believes a standard set-list annoys the many Dylanologists who follow him on tour; Dylan preferring to see new faces rather than old diehards.
Dylan is particularly fond of music festivals as he is inspired by people coming to his work for the first time. As for his hits such as “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Blowing in the Wind”, these only get played a few times every couple of years and mainly at festivals.
These days, Dylan mostly plays and sings at the piano. He also doesn’t allow cameras to project him on the screen. Many are wondering what the arrangement will be at Fuji Rock. While no one knows for sure what he will play, Heckel is pretty certain there will be little banter with the audience aside from “Hi, Tokyo”. He adds that there are some concerts where he doesn’t say a single word to the audience. Sometimes he even performs on stages that are nearly dark aside from a single light.
“I am guessing there will about 15 songs performed and because there are a lot of young people he will play some of his better known songs because there will be many new fans,” says Heckel.
As Fuji Rock is an artist-based festival, audiences may be treated to a truly special performance this year. Upping the ante is the fact that Dylan’s first visit to Japan was in 1978, nearly 40 years ago, which is exactly when Ryosei Sato of Humbert Humbert was born, ensuring the artist has still has a generation of new fans.
Text: Sean Scanlan (from interview originally published in Japanese)
Photo: Takehiro Funabashi