Bob Dylan's Second Appearance on "Saturday Night Live"
Dylan's first appearance on SNL is well-documented and well-remembered, a benchmark in his career. It was the first exposure for most of his audience to the freshly-minted fire-and-brimstone preacher, on a TV show enjoying among the highest ratings of its long run, reaching perhaps fifty times as many viewers as people who had already bought the LP.
But who remembers even the build-up for his second appearance on the program, nearly a decade later, on the heavily promoted 1988 season finale, hosted by Gilda Radner. With an eagerly-awaited new album about to hit the stores, with his longest tour since 1978 to follow in just two weeks, Dylan surprised the audience as he fronted a small group featuring SNL bandleader G. E. Smith and delivered a riveting performance of his new single, "Silvio," as well as a sensitive acoustic rendition of another song from his new album, . . .
OK, that didn't happen. Never took place. I made it up -- but only sort of. It was on the schedule. It was planned. But the internal warfare in the entertainment industry kept it from happening. Somehow it's gone virtually unreported, even by those of us with the most determined interest in documenting Dylan's career.
In the spring of 1988, the late night TV show had narrowly avoided cancellation just two years earlier after a period of creative and popular decline; but now the retooled SNL was recovering smartly. Lorne Michaels, by the beginning of March, had mapped out a top-drawer season finale, featuring Gilda Radner as host, making her return to the show after eight years, and Dylan as musical guest.
And then in early March, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. While most of the 1987-88 TV season was unaffected, the scripted-on-the-fly, live or same-day taped series like Tonight and SNL were forced to shut down. The strike, the longest of its kind, dragged on until August.
When SNL production resumed in September, no effort was made to repackage any of the cancelled bookings. Radner never hosted the show; she died within the year. In a pair of striking if unimportant coincidences, she died on May 20, the date of the 1989 SNL season finale, and was buried on May 24, Dylan's birthday.
Dylan has not yet appeared again on SNL. While there were rumors of a Wilburys appearance during the 1988-89 season, it never happened, although the 1990 season finale featured Mark Knopfler's Notting Hillbillies. seen by some as a minor league version of the Wilburys.
The plans for Dylan's return to SNL were first reported, so far as I can tell, by AP reporter Kathryn Baker, who interviewed Dylan in August in Los Angeles and Michaels in early fall in New York, mentioning it in a nationally syndicated piece on the TV show's return to the air.
It's tantalizing to think about what might have happened. The SNL broadcast would have very high-profile, particularly with Radner's health drama and the tabloid focus on her failed marriage to G. E. Smith. A rousing performance by Dylan, along the lines of most of the early NET dates, would have washed away the memories of the televised Live Aid shambles and the less-than-exciting Farm Aid miniset. Then, a few days later, Down In The Groove would be released, to a chorus of mostly favorable reviews.
What's that, you say? Wasn't DITG scorned and castigated when it was released? Well, that's how it's remembered, but that's just not what happened. Rolling Stone's review may have been lukewarm, but its tone was friendly, and the high-circulation USA Today raved that the album was "a glorious achievement." Most newspaper reviews found it enjoyable if less than major. Its reputation has steadily declined, but its initial reception was warm and supportive.
So, in this history-that-never-happened, following a smash TV appearance and a happily received album, Dylan goes out on the road in June 1988, not seen as the haphazard 60's refugee that the US press saw after the Petty and Dead tours pf the two prior years, but as the "reborn singing songwriter and collector of great tunes" that USA Today praised. It's hard to see him playing to the string of half-filled smaller arenas that faced him in the real 1988. It's easy to contemplate a triumphant fall appearance at Madison Square Garden in October, perhaps with a Wilbury or four in tow for the encores.
Of course, he might have decided to play "Ugliest Girl In The World," "Had A Dream About You Baby," or even "Shenandoah." He might have stumbled over his lines in a Candy Slice sketch with Radner. Not every promising opportunity turns out as well as one would hope. Even if the TV show went well, would the suddenly higher visibility have been such a good thing? I doubt the Bob Dylan who wrote Chronicles would have thought so. The NeverEnding Tour, as it actually played out, has had a pretty good run after all, at least so far.