Bob Dylan and the strange case of the soy bomb stage invader

Bob Dylan onstage next to a shirtless stage invader with 'Soy Bomb' daubed on his chest
(Image credit: Kevin Mazur)

The 1998 Grammy Awards were more interesting than most. It was the year The Wu-Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard made an unscheduled appearance onstage to protest his group's failure to win the Best Rap Album prize. It was the year Fiona Apple apparently told the 15-year-old LeAnn Rimes "You got fucked" after the latter lost out to Trisha Yearwood in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was the year Aretha Franklin sang Nessen Dorma.

And it was the year of the Bob Dylan soy bomb stage invader.  

Dylan Was nominated in three categories, and won each of them: the previous year's Time Out Of Mind picked up the Grammy Awards for Album Of The Year and Best Contemporary Folk Album, while  Cold Irons Bound picked up the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance prize. And he would close the show by performing Love Sick.

To enliven proceedings, the show's casting director paid some extras $200 to dance in the background as Dylan and his band performed, and the dress rehearsals went off without a hitch. 

"We were tested on our ability to sway arrhythmically to the beat," one of the dancers, Michael Portnoy, told Billboard. "We were instructed, and this is a direct quote, 'to give Bob a good vibe.' If you watch us in the background, you can see how liberally this was interpreted."

When it came to the live performance, Portnoy decided to enliven the show, much to the confusion and/or delight of those attending and an estimated TV audience of 25 million. 

Portnoy arrives onstage at the two-and-a-half minute mark. He's shirtless, the words "SOY BOMB" are daubed on his chest in thick black capital letters, and he dances. And boy, does he dance, writhing around like a drama school Iggy Pop. Dylan looks bemused rather than terrified by the intrusion, but doesn't miss a beat, and a full 30 seconds elapse before staff pounce on the lively Portnoy and cart him off into the wings. Dylan launches into a solo, the band fall into a relaxed groove, the dancers sway with more purpose than previously, and it almost feels as if Portnoy was responsible.  

"It was such a perfect format to do something inscrutable," he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. "To inject some confusion into the mainframe. It felt like I couldn’t get on that stage and not do something else. And at that point in my life, I was working as a comedian. It was almost like telling a joke with my body."

Once the furore died down, Portnoy explained to Entertainment Weekly what is was all about. "Soy represents dense nutritional life," he said. "Bomb is, obviously, an explosive destructive force. So, soy bomb is what I think art should be: dense, transformational, explosive life."

Portnoy would go on to carve out a long career in the arts, expanding his repertoire to include installation, sculpture and painting, and in 2016 he staged Relational Stalinism - The Musical in Rotterdam. These days you'll find him acting as the "Director Of Behaviour" at The Fifth Space, an invitation-only "absurdist social space" in New York City. And he still hasn't been paid his $200 for the Grammy gig.  

"They escorted me backstage," he said. "They were very nice, nothing rough and they put me outside on 50th Street. It was February. I didn’t have a hat or coat on and some nice policemen let me onto the subway."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.