Better Than Coffee: The “Soy Bomb Incident”

Soy represents dense nutritional life. Bomb is, obviously, an explosive destructive force. So, “soy bomb” is what I think art should be: dense, transformational, explosive life!Michael Portnoy

I sometimes wonder how the NYC folks I’ve lost touch with are doing these days. For instance, my former roomie and occasional partner in performance art/music/fashion shenanigans, Michael Portnoy. A multi-talented, mischievous fellow who rented me a room in his flat on the Lower East Side when I first arrived in town, Michael’s “diverse practice spans dance-theater, metafunctional sculpture, fascist socials, experimental stand-up, prog-operatic spectacle, an aerobic restaurant where food leaps out from the walls, and Icelandic cockroach porn.” Noble pursuits, one and all! However, Mister Portnoy remains best known for his balls-out impromptu guerilla dance’plosion during Bob Dylan’s performance of “Love Sick” at the 1998 Grammy Awards:

(I love that it took almost a full minute for anyone to realize Soy Bomb wasn’t part of the show and “escort” him offstage.)

A bit of background info: the Grammys production team had hired Michael and two dozen other extras to stand in the background and wriggle in a shambolic, vaguely beatnik fashion to “give Bob a good vibe.” $200 to do a bit of insincere finger-snapping on live television? Not bad work if you can get it. But Michael had more grandiose visions, and of course, the rest is history. Love it or hate it (and to be sure, I love it a little more every time I watch it) “the Soy Bomb incident” has become one of the most memorable moments in televised award ceremony history, right up there with Sasheen Littlefeather declining Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for him to a chorus of boos, Jarvis Cocker interrupting Michael Jackson‘s pretentious BRIT Awards spectacle, and Sally Fields mewling “you like meee!”

Why does Soy Bomb resonate so much, even ten years later? For one thing, it’s a deeply surreal, astonishingly ridiculous moment for mainstream television. For another, Portnoy held nothing back. Whatever statement he was trying to make up there, he stated it with every last fibre of his being!

Some have said that his encroachment was an insult to Bob Dylan, both as an individual, and as a “living legend”. That’s one way of looking at it, I guess, though Dylan didn’t seem too concerned at the time. Personally, I find the official staging for Dylan’s “Love Sick” performance far less respectful of the legendary folk singer than Michael’s gyrations. Whatever coked up, pandering choreographer was behind the concept of hiring a bunch of black-clad hipsters –not only to dance in the background, but to actually follow the poor man to the podium and loiter behind him while he accepted his award–was, to my mind, far more out of touch with the meaning and resonance of Dylan’s rebellious spirit than an inspired neo-Yippie stunt.

A Salon columnist who wrote up the event said it best: “[Soy Bomb] was something real where real things don’t often intrude.”

Michael, wherever you are, I know you’re still keeping it real. Tick, tick, tick, BOOM, buddy.

7 Responses to “Better Than Coffee: The “Soy Bomb Incident””

  1. David Forbes Says:

    Just the other day, I randomly asked myself “that Soy Bomb thing from back when I was in high school? Man, that was weird. Wonder what the story behind that is.” And now I know. Thanks Mer!

    For my next question: what exactly is a “fascist social”?

  2. copyranter Says:

    In 1999, I saw Portnoy “box” a group of five five-year-olds as part of the card of a performance artist “boxing” benefit event at the Angel Orensanz Foundation center here in NYC. As performance art, it wasn’t nearly as memorable as Soy Bomb. But it was kinda fun watching him get the crap beat out of him by youngsters in costumes. In the only real fight on the card, author Jonathan “The Herring Wonder” Ames actually got his nose broken by David “The impact Addict” Leslie.
    Here’s the poster from the night:

  3. pr.incest Says:

    LOVED this. The expression on Dylan’s face when The Soy Bomber suddenly appeared and ‘went for it’ – is fully priceless. Also, the seriousness and exuberance of Portnoy’s no-holds-barred performance (while kind of rude, strange and hard to ‘figure out’) was brilliant. Hippie Beatnik Girl in the tank top snapping her fingers and following the original assignment closely also made me kind of laugh but for different reasons. Thanks for the smile. I’d say JUST AS GREAT AS COFFEE though!

  4. dan mcenroe Says:

    Any list of great award show moments has to include the streaker at the Oscars.

  5. Dave L. Says:

    Interesting timing on this one. “Soy Bomb” has actually been a topic of conversation at work for the past week, with my team planning a re-enactment of sorts for a Rock Band contest at the planned departmental holiday party.

  6. Erin Says:

    I found it to be rather humorous, but at the same time, having something like this happen in the lolita community rather recently (someone jumped up on stage and pranced around during a fashion show that these girls had worked months to put together) I also can’t help but wonder how pissed off a lot of people would be. But considering that Bob Dylan is ancient and decrepit and rich, it’s quite a bit different…

    So yes, hilarious. ;)

  7. Mer Says:

    Oh, Dan, you’re so right. I’d actually never seen the streaker footage before. Priceless.