“Bob always follows his path…” an eyewitness account of Dylan in Japan

In this extended outtake from our cover story, we hear from Dylan insider Toshiyuki 'Heckel' Sugano

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This month, Uncut digs deep into Bob Dylan’s transformative 1978 – his ground-breaking Japanese tour that yielded the At Budokan album. In an extended outtake from our cover story, TOSHIYUKI ‘HECKEL’ SUGANO – CBS/Sony product manager for Dylan in Japan at the time – and producer of the 1978 At Budokan LP and the new Complete Budokan, recalls how it came about…

UNCUT: Was it your idea to record a Bob Dylan live album in Tokyo? What response did you get at first?

SUGANO: When I heard from the promoter that Bob Dylan’s Japan dates were set in the fall of 1977, I immediately told my boss at CBS/Sony, Hiroshi Kanai, of my interest in making a live album. He started negotiating, and by the beginning of 1978, we obtained approval from Columbia Records in the U.S. and the Japanese promoter, pending Bob Dylan’s visit to Japan for the final decision.


Some of the band members told me they didn’t know they would be recording a live album until after they had already arrived in Japan. When did Dylan agree – when did you know for sure that the project would be going ahead?

SUGANO: On February 17, 1978, Bob Dylan arrived at Haneda Airport in Japan, and on the next day, February 18, the green light was lit to record a live album at the Budokan. Subsequently, it was decided to record the Tokyo concerts on February 28, March 1, and March 2, following his Osaka dates, allowing ample time to prepare recording equipment.

Were you at the airport when Dylan arrived? Can you describe the scene, the kind of response he received?


SUGANO: On February 17, 1978, when I arrived at Haneda Airport to welcome Dylan, media reporters flooded the area, causing a frenzy that is captured in a photo featured in The Complete Budokan booklet. The following day, headlines about Bob Dylan’s first visit to Japan made the front page news of numerous papers. CBS/Sony organized a press conference at the Haneda Tokyu Hotel right next to the airport, where I met Bob in person for the first time. As we exchanged greetings, I introduced myself and expressed my longtime admiration for his music. I distinctly remember the happy expression on Bob’s face as we shook hands.

You had been a Dylan fan for many years – when did you first see him live? What do you remember most about watching him perform live for the first time?

SUGANO: My first live Bob Dylan show was at Chicago Stadium on January 3, 1974, from his first extensive U.S. tour since 1966 with The Band. Uncertain whether I’d ever have a chance to see him live in Japan, I decided to travel to the U.S. But the twist was that Bob had just parted ways with Columbia Records in the fall of ’73, signed up with David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and released Planet Waves. As an employee of CBS/Sony, I took a month-long leave of absence and embarked on a personal tour across the U.S. to attend Dylan’s shows. I saw nine concerts in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Since getting a hold of tickets from Japan back then, before the days of the internet, posed a challenge, I headed to Chicago without securing any tickets in advance. The opening song at Chicago Stadium puzzled me; as a self-proclaimed enthusiastic Dylan fan, I found it unrecognizable, and so did the rest of the crowd at the venue. It turned out to be the lesser-known “Hero Blues”.

How were you struck by the sound and style of the band Dylan had when he arrived in Japan in 1978? It was very different from previous Dylan shows. Were you surprised?

SUGANO: It came as quite a shock. Because the band, complete with a female chorus, performed new arrangements of well-known songs that were not immediately recognizable. In Japan, Dylan was revered as a “folk god,” and his image with an acoustic guitar was deeply ingrained. To my surprise, he never reached for an acoustic guitar during the Japan tour. Not once.

I think you only had two days of recording at Budokan. Were you able to enjoy the shows? Or were you too focused on the technical aspects of capturing the recording? What was the most difficult aspect of recording?

SUGANO: Initially, we had the approval to record for three days, but after two days, Bob said he was content with all his performances and didn’t need to record the third day. So we recorded only two days. I was at all the afternoon sound checks and watched the entire concert from the side of the stage. After each performance, Bob would approach me and ask, “How was the sound? How was the crowd’s reaction?” Despite having purchased tickets for every show during the Japan tour, I never had the chance to sit in the audience to enjoy the performance. On the recording day, I entrusted the technical aspects to Tom Suzuki, hoping everything would go smoothly and the entire concert would be captured flawlessly on tape.

Was there any video or film footage recorded?

SUGANO: NHK (Japanese public broadcaster) recorded the first three songs (“Lonesome Bedroom”, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Threw It All Away”) from the February 20 concert on 16mm film. Portions of this footage were featured in their TV program Bob Dylan is Coming To Japan. Unfortunately, no other footage has survived.

This was Dylan’s first visit to Japan. Do you recall him exploring the country and the culture between the shows?

SUGANO: I have little insight into his off-stage activities. According to the promoter, he occasionally went to Shinjuku and Harajuku. However, during the Osaka show, Dylan and his entourage visited Kyoto for sightseeing. I had the privilege of accompanying Bob on this excursion, allowing me to witness his deep admiration for the stone garden at Ryoanji Temple and his genuine enjoyment of Japanese cuisine at a local restaurant. In a short note he wrote for the original Budokan, Bob expressed his thoughts about this experience.

How did you go about compiling the original At Budokan LP? How did you decide which songs and which recordings to use? What did you want to capture on the record?

SUGANO: Deciding on the songs and their order for the double LP, our plan from the beginning, posed a challenge. I aimed to capture the essence of the live performance on record faithfully. While conventional LP records usually accommodated a maximum of 20 minutes per side, I persuaded the engineer to push that limit, capturing nearly 30 minutes on each side. The song sequence differed from the actual concerts to fit each side’s recording length. To our regret, there were songs we couldn’t include, leading to the creation now of The Complete Budokan. I aimed to craft a compelling album where Bob’s vocals penetrated through, drawing inspiration from his impactful live album Hard Rain, released in 1977.

There’s a great photograph that you took of Dylan in Los Angeles, when you went to meet him there with the test pressings and proposed art mockups for At Budokan in June 1978. Were you nervous? Did Dylan say much to you about the record, the art, or anything else?

SUGANO: I was told in advance that Bob would personally review the test pressings and artwork to decide on the record’s release. I handed the test pressing and two art mockups to Dylan’s secretary on the first day of the LA concert, June 1. On the afternoon of June 7, the final day of the LA concert, his secretary called me and told me to come backstage for Bob’s response. Though I was confident in a positive outcome, there was still a lingering fear of rejection. Anxiously, I waited backstage at a large table in the open air. Eventually, Bob arrived, sat across from me, and almost simultaneously said, “Good album. When is it coming out?” At that moment, my heart leaped with joy.  All my anxiety went away, allowing me to approach him in a relaxed manner. Bob had just completed his new album, Street Legal, and was concerned about the release date of Budokan. So, we agreed to release it in November. He didn’t provide specific requests for the content and promptly chose a close-up profile photo for the cover. During our conversation, Bob asked if I had seen his new studio. Unaware that he had built a Rundown Studio in Santa Monica, I regretted not asking him to show it to me because, in retrospect, he might have said yes. However, I asked if I could take pictures of him with my cheap camera, and he agreed. That photo is featured in The Complete Budokan. Interestingly, after I took my picture of Bob, Bob used the same camera to capture my face.

Did you attend any of those shows in Los Angeles on that trip? If so, how do you remember those? And how would you describe the difference between the American rock audiences and the audiences who watched Dylan in Japan?

SUGANO: I attended all seven shows from June 1 to 7 during the entire run. Jerry Scheff took over the bass seat, and there were changes in the chorus lineup. While the concert’s basic structure remained unchanged, the setlist changed. New additions like “Baby, Stop Crying” and “Senor”, along with well-known tracks such as “Tangled Up In Blue”, were included. Contrasting the tense atmosphere at the Budokan, where the attentive audience hung on to every single word of Bob’s songs, the atmosphere at the outdoor theater near Universal Studios was very relaxed. The concerts started at dusk, and the laid-back vibe was palpable. Some enthusiastic fans even danced in the back rows, which I found quintessentially L.A.

What did you think when you listened to the tapes for this expanded Complete Budokan? Does this new edition tell us anything more about those shows?

SUGANO: Astonishingly, this recording dates back 45 years, and the sound quality remains outstanding. I must thank the warehouse managers at CBS/Sony for preserving these recordings. Special thanks also go to Tetsuya Shiroki, the current product manager for Dylan at Sony Music, who tirelessly negotiated with Dylan’s team to realize my dream.

In creating The Complete Budokan, I wanted to share the thrill of that day’s concert at the Budokan with as many people as possible. Therefore, I chose to preserve the show exactly as it was, without adding anything to or removing anything from the remaining tapes. Bob’s vocals resonate through the audience as they must have moved many then. We are confident that we captured ‘Bob as he was that day.’ We crafted the artwork to capture Bob’s sentiments about Japan, including the jacket design, booklet and memorabilia, inspiring a generation that couldn’t witness what he was like 45 years ago. Bob’s 1978 world tour, which kicked off in Japan in February and continued through December, stirred controversy in various ways. The presence of a large band with a chorus, musicians donning beautiful stage costumes, and the incorporation of bold arrangements featuring trendy reggae rhythms led some to label Dylan as a showbiz artist. However, having witnessed Bob perform in over 300 concerts across different eras, including the recent Rough And Rowdy Ways tour, I firmly believe that Bob always follows his path and does what he truly wants to do. He is more than an entertainer; he is an artist and a creator. In his illustrious 60-year career, his 1978 tour is a pivotal moment. The Complete Budokan remains the only album that fully encapsulates that period of his life, and we take great pride in its release.

The Complete Budokan is released by Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings on November 17


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