As Bob Dylan turned 70 on May 24, his fans in Georgia were remembering a few strange days in July 1985 -- days which their idol spent in Tbilisi, the capital of what was then the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Many Georgians still find the whole episode hard to believe. Not least because throughout his stay Dylan was kept away from his fans, so only a lucky few got the chance to meet him. But for many, the most amazing aspect of the story is picturing Dylan -- the very symbol of critical thinking and nonconformity -- in the same room as representatives of the official Soviet cultural establishment.
"Theater of the absurd." This is all my friend, Georgian music producer Giorgi Asanishvili, can say when he imagines Dylan visiting the dacha of Zurab Tsereteli, one of the most powerful and influential figures of Soviet propaganda art (who later became Russia’s quasi-official sculptor).
Giorgi is too young to actually remember Dylan’s visit; he only knows about it from other people’s memories. But Zura Kakabadze, one of Dylan’s most devoted Georgian fans, was there.
"One day, someone said that Dylan was in Tbilisi," Kakabadze says. "At first, we couldn't believe it, but it turned out to be true."
He remembers how he and other fans -- several dozen in total -- rushed to the offices of the official Writers’ Union, where Dylan was scheduled to have a meeting with respected Georgian writers.
Most of the fans did not get lucky that day. Dylan was whisked in and out of the building too fast. But one man -- musician and actor Kisho Glunchadze, who later emigrated from Georgia -- did manage to get close to the car in which Dylan was riding. He even took a photograph, shouting “I love you, Mr. Dylan!” as he did so.
Kakabadze was exceptionally lucky the following day. He succeeded in meeting and talking to Dylan, albeit briefly. Kakabadze and a friend waited in the lobby of the hotel where Dylan was staying and greeted the musician as he returned from an excursion outside Tbilisi.
"I approached him, introduced myself, and told him I loved his music," Kakabadze recalls. "We spoke for five minutes, roughly. He was very polite. Even though he looked very tired, he stayed there and spoke to us, in a very calm and friendly manner.
"We knew he was leaving Tbilisi the next day, so we went to the hotel again. We brought him Georgian folk music records; also a copy of the very first article published about him in the Soviet press. He was in the car already, about to leave. We managed to pass these things over to him. I remember him looking at the article with great interest. Obviously, he couldn't read it, as it was in Russian. And then he was driven away."
Never Popular In Soviet Union
It was Andrei Voznesensky, the famous Russian poet, who invited Dylan to the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. It is believed the musician, who was accompanied by one of his sons, wanted to visit Odesa, which his paternal grandparents fled at the beginning of the 20th century. But from Moscow, for some reason, he was sent to Tbilisi.
As Kakabadze puts it, this is exactly how Dylan’s Georgian hosts viewed him, as “an American guest sent by Moscow” who was supposed to be treated with due respect. Many had little idea of who it was they were welcoming.
Dylan's autograph, written on a napkin and given to a fan during the songwriter's visit to Tbilisi in 1985
To be sure, Dylan was never really popular in the Soviet Union. Other Western musicians and groups -- primarily the Beatles, of course, but also the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple -- were much more fashionable, with their records smuggled though the Iron Curtain and their hairstyles and fashion sense copied.
Dylan, most likely due to his sophisticated, dense poetic imagery and raw, unpolished musical sound, had a much smaller circle of fans -- even with Soviet censorship being relatively forgiving toward his work (probably because it was not too difficult to portray him as a "critic of the Western capitalist order").
Bored And Confused
Another factor that comes to mind when trying to explain Dylan’s lack of popularity in the former Soviet Union is that, in contrast to the loud and extravagant Western rock groups, his style was not very “exotic” to Soviet listeners. In fact, they had a bunch of their own, local “bards” -- Russian singer-songwriters who themselves gained popularity in the 1960s.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that Dylan’s genius was not widely understood. And so perhaps it is not surprising that his visit to Soviet Georgia was not distinguished by a lot of meaningful communication. Rumor has it that Dylan only managed to smile but a few times. Some say it was when he heard a duduk ensemble that performed at yet another dinner party thrown in his honor. Others claim he was impressed with a Georgian folk choir. Mostly, it's said, Dylan walked around looking a bit bored and confused.
"I remember it very well -- Bob Dylan in a shabby T-shirt, seeming like an unfriendly, grumpy man," says Irakli Makharadze, a documentary filmmaker who, as a 23-year-old graduate, happened to be present during Dylan’s visit to Zurab Tsereteli’s dacha. "He said almost nothing, so to hope that he would sing something would have been nonsense. He just sat there, looking gloomy and picking at his food, while a full-on Georgian feast was going on in the room, with its customary loud and pompous toasts."
A well-known, respectable, and upright Georgian poet was the toastmaster -- or tamada -- at that feast, Makharadze remembers, without revealing any names. And it seems that he remained unimpressed with the gloomy American guest.
"At one point, the toastmaster turned to me. 'How can it be that he can be called as much of a poet as me?' he asked, pointing at Dylan. This made me laugh. Probably he had no idea who Bob Dylan really was."
But in a peculiar way, the toastmaster was right. Having to say that Bob Dylan and the members of the Writers’ Union -- an important pillar of Soviet ideological structure -- were all equally "poets" is indeed a little strange. For some -- like my friend Giorgi Asanishvili -- they are in fact the very antithesis of each other: a street poet, symbolizing free thought and nonconformity, and court poets with direct and personal ties to the Communist Party nomenklatura.
"Dylan landed right at the heart of what he was fighting against," says Asanishvili. "Hypocrisy, indulgence, and falseness -- Soviet Georgia’s Writers’ Union."
No wonder, then, that the guest seemed a bit gloomy.