Playing Love Sick at the Grammys in ’98, Bob Dylan’s band gained an unexpected member. Michael Portnoy – aka Soy Bomb Guy – tells his story.
Bob Dylan was not yet three minutes into Love Sick during the 1998 Grammy ceremony at Radio City Music Hall when a shirtless man appeared, cavorting behind him. “SOY BOMB” his chest read in thick black marker. As the shot widened, he writhed in tighter contortions. Dylan turned to his new guitarist, Larry Campbell, and yelled: “Who the hell is this guy?”
It was Michael Portnoy, a New York actor then interested in “a synthesis of experimental theatre, comedy, and dance.” After appearing in the video for Elton John’s Recover Your Soul, the 26-year-old had scored the Grammys gig from his theatrical agent, but it would be fair to say that he was exceeding his brief. In fact his instructions had been spartan – arrive that night in cool grey or black clothes, stand on-stage in a specified spot, act like you’re having fun, and leave with $200. “It felt like a Benetton ad — ‘We’re going to get an extremely diverse, hip crowd to show that the kids like him,’” remembers Portnoy, now 51 and still not a Dylan fan nearly a quarter-century later. “I knew I had to do some kind of intervention. That’s what I was into then, something completely unexpected.”
When he noticed that afternoon just how few steps he’d be from Dylan on live TV, he decided to write something on his chest, break ranks, and dance beside him until security wrestled him away. He debated possibilities until “SOY BOMB” popped into the then-vegetarian’s head — tofu plus “something from a completely different semantic field, to vibrate in some ambiguous way”. A friend, the sculptor Marianne Vitale, turned his chest into a canvas, and he left most of his buttons undone or loosely glued to make shirt removal easier. He just never planned to be onstage for nearly a minute.
I was secretly hoping, ‘Fuck, someone please take me off stage.’
“There had only been one rehearsal, so the people in the control booth didn’t know if it was part of the act,” Portnoy says, noting he was escorted off only when a casting director onstage spotted him. Even Dylan’s band, Campbell included, wondered if the spectacle was planned. “I was secretly hoping, ‘Fuck, someone please take me off stage.’”
Portnoy worried he might get arrested. But when policemen saw him shirtless and shivering outside Radio City, they gave him a white sheet and walked him through subway security. The next day, he retrieved his jacket and wallet but never bothered collecting the $200. Though one casting director demanded that the Screen Actors Guild revoke his union card, they declined to banish their pre-viral sensation.
At Tulsa’s new Bob Dylan Center, where Love Sick is featured as one of the core songs telling the story of Dylan’s creativity, Portnoy has been expertly excised from the Love Sick clip. But the spirit of Soy Bomb has persevered in the last 25 years through Portnoy’s widely exhibited work, which often asks hard questions about the ways we interact with one another with humorous and often absurdist scenarios. Take German commission Character Assassination, a TV show where an audience is mocked, smeared, and jeered through what they’ve posted online - it's a pointed exaggeration of our tendency to assume the worst of each other, fuelled by our own output. Or there’s the ingenious The Roaster, where Portnoy recruited an artist to lampoon, criticize, and even improve every other work in the 2010 Taipei Biennial.
Speaking of improving, that’s what Portnoy aims to do for sex itself on his latest work, Progressive Touch, a disturbing and delightful 12-minute half-porn/half-dance film set to splenetic music he composed with Stefan Maier. Characters suck, caress, grind, and grope to the unpredictable score, trying to get off with meters that don’t quite lend themselves to the feat. Think Death Grips meets Yes meets Penthouse. “How do we ‘improve’ sex by complicating the rhythm and choreography to an absurd degree?” Portnoy says of the premise, guffawing. Good thing he didn’t try that with Dylan, huh?
The Soy Bomb stunt did lead to one instance of legitimate work way back then. Months after the ceremony, Richard Branson invited Portnoy to an industry conference in San Francisco. They sat in a hotel room together getting their chests painted before Branson’s speech — Portnoy thinks his chest spelt “SO Y VIRGIN?” and Branson’s “SO Y NOT?”. Later, as Branson spoke, Portnoy danced to the stage and took off his top, then Branson did the same.
Art turned into advertising? “Oh, yeah,” says Portnoy, laughing, “but that was well paid.”
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