When Bob Dylan Was the Center Of The Universe

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By Michael Goldberg.

In 1966, no one played live rock ‘n’ roll to match Bob Dylan and the Hawks!

The days slowly passed, and I was maybe halfway through the 36 CDs that comprise the latest official bootleg, Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, when I took a break to drive with my wife to Las Vegas so we could canvas for Hillary Clinton in hopes that she would defeat Donald Trump.

We spent a week in the Vegas suburbs, going door to door, my memory of songs from the 1966 Live Recordings playing over and over in my head as I walked in the hot sun from one cookie-cutter house to another. This was not Desolation Row, or rather, to me it was a different Desolation Row, one not populated by Cinderella and Casanova and the others that star in Dylan’s song. I grew up in a suburb, not a Little Boxes cookie-cutter suburb, but a suburb all the same, and I’ve always hated them.

In Vegas, I don’t know what I expected, but when many of the folks upon whose doors we knocked opened them, they weren’t the Stepford people I imagined might live there. Once again a stereotype proved wrong. These were ordinary folks, each an individual, none conforming to any preconceptions, no different than you or I.

As it turned out, they were mostly enthused Hillary supporters. We would ask if they had voted yet. If the answer was yes, my wife would then enquire, “Did you vote for the Democrats?”

They would look as us like we were crazy to ask. “Of course!” many of these folks replied.

One women asked if she could get us some bottles of water.

We were so certain (based on the polls) that Hillary would win, that we cut short our stay in Vegas by one day, and on November 8 – election day – drove to L.A. to watch the returns come in with my brother-in-law and his wife.

That’s when reality set in.

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Back home in Northern California, I was reeling. A heaviness descended, and just to take a step seemed impossible. My plan, in the abstract, back before the returns came in, was that upon our return I would dive back into listening to the Dylan CDs and write about them. But now I had no energy for that. It all seemed so inconsequential, pointless, in the face of electing a fascist. In the face of what the future held for all of us. Not just the U.S. but the entire planet.

More days slowly passed, and while the heaviness remained, I began to listen to the Dylan CDs. I came to understand that there was a point. To listening. To writing.

The election of Trump refutes everything Dylan stood for back in the Sixties, back when he was writing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters of War” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Those songs weren’t played during Dylan’s 1966 world tour, the tour that is represented on Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, but the songs that were played are there own refutation – a steadfast refutation of Donald Trump’s world.

It’s just music some might say, but music can be more than music as most of us know. It can lift our spirits, it can bring out joy, anger, frustration, sadness. It can be a rallying cry, a call to arms. It’s not going stop the racism and the sexism and the homophobia and the anti-semitism that Trump has unleashed on the world this past year and a half. But it can motivate us to take a stand, to fight back. During a time of anger and sadness and frustration and defeat, at least for some of us, this music can provide solace, a reprieve from the madness.

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Fifty-plus years ago, in early February 1966, Bob Dylan began a world tour – actually, a continuation of the touring he’d begun at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium the previous August.

This was Dylan touring for the first time since his early success as a rock ‘n’ roll singer.

He was accompanied by four-fifths of The Hawks (Robbie Robertson, guitar; Garth Hudson, organ; Rick Danko, bass; and Richard Manuel, piano), the bar band that had for years backed the obscure Ontario, Canada-based rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, plus drummer Mickey Jones, whose previous experience included touring with Trini Lopez and Johnny Rivers. The 1966 tour followed both the release of Dylan’s first full-blown rock ‘n’ roll album, Highway 61 Revisited, and the protracted recording sessions for my favorite of his albums, Blonde On Blonde, which wasn’t released until after the tour was over, in early July 1966, three weeks before Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident.

Much of the ’66 tour was recorded in mono by Dylan’s soundman, Richard Alderson, right off the board; more sophisticated stereo recordings supervised by Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnson, were made of four shows including two at the Royal Albert Hall in London; there were crude, at times unlistenable audience recordings made of others. All of these have now been released on Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings.

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Much  has been made of Dylan’s move from folk singer to rock star, and the reception his rock sets received, first at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and then during the 1966 tour. There is no question that many fans of Dylan the folksinger felt betrayed by Dylan’s return to rock ‘n’ roll (he’d played rock as a teenager in Minnesota) and was a fan of Buddy Holly, Little Richard and others. It was when Dylan got to Europe that things intensified. Some of the audience members were quite hostile.

“That tour was a very strange process,” Robertson recalled many years later. “You can hear the violence, and the dynamics in the music. We’d go from town to town, from country to country, and it was like a job. We set up, we played, they booed and threw things at us. Then we went to the next town, played, they booed, threw things, and we left again. I remember thinking, ‘This is a strange way to make a buck.’”

What was particularly strange about the booing in Europe was that this was 1966, not 1955. Rock ‘n’ roll was more than a decade old. People knew what rock ‘n’ roll was, and rock ‘n’ roll was everywhere. Dylan himself had become a rock star the previous July when “Like a Rolling Stone” reached the number two position on the Billboard singles chart. By the time Dylan played his first 1966 tour date outside the U.S., in Sydney, Australia, in April, Highway 61 Revisited had been available for eight months and had charted at number three and number four in the U.S. and U.K. respectively, and Dylan had a second top ten hit in the U.S. with another rock song, “Positively Fourth Street.” It should have been no surprise to those who attended a Dylan concert that the artist was now playing rock ‘n’ roll.

And yet, night after night, they came, they listened quietly and appreciatively to the acoustic portion of the show, and then booed and yelled during the electric set. As Greil Marcus noted in his book, “Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads,” in a strange way this inspired Dylan and his musicians. “No matter how well Bob Dylan and the Hawks played in the United States, no matter how fiercely, compared to the music sparked by the conflict in the U.K. it was barbershop harmony in a rowboat.”

We are the lucky benefactors of that conflict. Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings is remarkable. Most of the recordings are quite good, and the set list Dylan stuck to in Australia and Europe allows us to listen to night after night of the best rock ‘n’ roll ever played live. (For those who aren’t so obsessed with Dylan, you might at least consider getting hold of The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert, which is one of the highlights of the tour.)

In the U.S. at the beginning of the tour Dylan played a bit with the set list and the audience tapes from those shows find him playing “To Ramona,” “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit” and “Positively Fourth Street,” in addition to many of the songs he would play in Australia and Europe.

With the exception of first concert in Australia, where Dylan substituted “Positively Fourth Street,” for “Like a Rolling Stone,” for the rest of the tour the set list didn’t vary and consisted of the following: “She Belongs To Me,” “Fourth Time Around,” “Visions of Johanna,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Desolation Row,” “Just Like A Woman,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Tell Me, Mama,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “One Too Many Mornings,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Three of the songs were from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, three from Highway 61 Revisited and five from the not-yet-released Blonde On Blonde. All of those songs had been written and recorded within the past two years. This was an artist who, for the most part, was playing recent material – including six songs (the Blonde on Blonde material plus “Tell Me, Momma”) – that most in the audience had not heard previously.

The concert was split into two sets: Dylan performed solo during the first, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harp, and then after an intermission, he strapped on his electric guitar and was joined by his band for an electric set.

As he struggled with an out-of-tune acoustic guitar before playing “Desolation Row” at the Olympia Theater in Paris, and clearly referencing the hostility he’d already been dealing with during his electric sets at prior concerts, Dylan joked, “My electric guitar never goes out of tune.”

The 36 CDs contain recordings from 23 concerts. Although only three of Dylan’s 21 U.S. concerts from 1966 are included – and those are very funky audience recordings – the rest of the tour is well documented with only four shows from Australia missing.

So mostly what we have here are 15 songs played over and over during a four month period. Whether you will find listening repeatedly to these 15 songs fascinating or a bore is dependent on the your level of fascination with Bob Dylan and these songs, many of which are among his best, and which work together here to make for an extraordinary concert, one that builds and builds during an hour and a half, climaxing with the incredible “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that still makes me sharply aware I’m truly alive every time I hear it.

There are stand-out performances (and priceless comments made by Dylan from the stage – such as during the real Royal Albert Hall concerts), but what is amazing is how consistently great so many of the performances are. Dylan and the band got things rocking in the U.S. – this was the first time Dylan had toured with any accompanying musicians, and the first time he’d played rock ‘n’ roll night after night. So at first he was feeling his way into making music onstage with a band. And for the musicians, sure they were pros but nothing they had done before could compare to dealing with the mercurial Bob Dylan, and the lyrical complexities of the material.

And then they flew to Australia, and it was brand new all over again. Now the music, strong during the U.S. leg, amped up into the stratosphere. The sound was controlled chaos: Dylan fucking with his enunciation every night; Robbie Robertson playing with the forces of nature – his solos and riffs lighting flashes ’cross the foreboding sky. Of his band, Dylan says near the end of the final concert at the Royal Albert Hall, “they’re all poets.”

At least one critic recently wrote that he thought Dylan sounds “a little bored with the voice and guitar format” of the acoustic set. I totally disagree. What Dylan sounds, at times, is drugged. Which could be a put on, Dylan acting a caricature of a drugged-out artist. Or perhaps it’s real. Whatever, the acoustic sets are, for me, just as strong as the electric portion of each night, one complimenting the other. And, once again, Dylan was a trailblazer. Before him, as far as I can tell, no one played acoustic for a set and then returned with a rock ‘n’ roll band. After Dylan, it became common.

I could write about each performance, go on about the differences, some subtle, some dramatic, between, say, the version of “Visions of Johanna” played in Paris’ Olympia Theater, and the one played at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But I’m not going to do that. If you really care about Dylan when he was peaking as an artist, you’ll need to hear this music. It’s all good, and some of it exquisite.

So  here are a few randon thoughts I had while listening to the recordings:

* “She Belongs To Me”: Belfast, Ireland, May 16. Like a number of the songs Dylan included in the acoustic set, he’d been performing “She Belongs To Me” since March 1965, yet it still feels alive throughout the 1966 tour. On the studio recording of this song, Dylan sings that “she wears an Egyptian ring,” but throughout the ’65 and ’66 performances, it was an “Egyptian red ring.” I’ve always loved that lyrical change, and how it changes the way Dylan sings that line (and I even worked it into my third novel, “The Moon & the Stars”). I love the brief but poignant harp solo that follows the fourth verse and then, following the fifth verse, ends the song. (Dylan’s harp playing throughout the tour is exceptional. Immediately following this performance of “She Belongs to Me” he begins “Fourth Time Around” with a beautiful harp prelude.)

* “Fourth Time Around”: Manchester, England, May 17. I’ve been living with this exquisite version of “Fourth Time Around” for 45 years. It was only while listening to this song over and over while checking out this 36 CD set that I had the revelation that these lyrics about the bitter end of a relationship are addressed not to the former lover who most of the song might seem to be about, but rather, the woman the singer went to next – and has subsequently left. The most intriguing lines are in the third and fifth verses. In the third verse the narrator tells us that while in the first lover’s residence waiting for her to get him the shirt that he obviously left in her bedroom when he dressed after sex, he stood in the hallway and tried to make sense out of a picture leaning against a bottle of rum of the second lover in her “wheelchair.” And then in the fifth verse, directly addressing the second lover, the singer says of their relationship, that he never took much from her, never asked for her “crutch’ and therefore she shouldn’t ask “for mine.” All of this refers back to the beginning of the song, in which the narrator, again, speaking to the second lover about the first, told us that the first lover told him, “Don’t forget, Everybody must give something back, For something they get.” A complex story about how love can go terribly wrong, and how lovers mistreat each other. And that’s just some what’s in this novel that has been condensed into a four and a half minute song.

* “Visions of Johanna”: London, England, May 26. Perhaps Dylan’s greatest song, this night Dylan brings us right into the room with him and Louise, his tone intimate, tortured. At first the tale he tells in first person present tense seems to be happening in real time, but by the end of the third verse we know that it’s all in the past. The last line of the third verse switches to first person past. And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn.” The narrator is using the first person present tense as a literary device; these events are over. The lyrics play on multiple levels. The narrator there with Louise but unable to forget Johanna of whom he is still obsessed and who “little boy lost” reminded him, gave the narrator a “last kiss.” Johanna forever gone; Louise a pale substitute. So there’s that. There is alienation, a bigger illness than cancer and heart disease in our time. “We all sit here stranded, though we’re doing our best to deny it.” And the worship of the golden calf. Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” And so much more. Sung so end-is-near serious. Sarcasm and a few attempts at humor don’t hide his hopelessness. Johanna’s not here. All is lost.

* “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”: Edinburgh, Scotland, May 20. In the film “Don’t Look Back” Donovan visits Dylan in his suite at the Savoy Hotel in London. After Donovan plays his simplistic “To Sing For You,” Dylan takes the guitar and shuts Donovan down as he plays a devastating version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The song was just as powerful during the 1966 tour. I dig this six-plus minute low-key version with its mournful harp outro.

* “Desolation Row”: Edinburgh, Scotland, May 20. Dylan is the master of opening lines. It still kills me every time I hear the first lines of this song: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging, They’re painting the passports brown, The beauty parlor’s filled with sailors, The circus is in town.” Like Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg before him, Dylan shares a dark view of the U.S. that still holds true. The slow pace and somber reading of the song is mesmerizing. Unfortunately this is an incomplete recording, but I just love the way Dylan sings what’s here.

* “Just Like A Woman”: Birmingham, England, May 12. Try to imagine hearing “Just Like a Woman” for the first time. That’s what those in Dylan’s audience got to experience. To hear such a beautiful song for the first time in a live performance, before it was out on record. What a gift! Unlike some of the earlier versions, for this one Dylan is playing a more sophisticated and satisfying guitar accompaniment. And his harp playing throughout this evening is on spot.

* “Mr. Tambourine Man”: Dylan channels T.S. Elliot, Whether drugs figured in the writing or content of this song, the result on one level is an amazing interpretation of the psychedelic experience in the mid-Sixties. This final verse is so incredible I have included it, complete with its devastating final line:

“Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow”

* “Tell Me, Mama”: Manchester, England, May 17. I’ve always loved the Manchester Free Trade Hall version, which I’ve been listening to since I was a kid. I used this song in a scene in my rock ‘n’ roll coming-of-age novel, “True Love Scars,” when the narrator is having a nervous breakdown.

* “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”: London, May 27: The song is a wild thing the musicians wrestle to the ground. To hear Robbie Robertson’s wiry guitar riffs is to drink a dangerous elixir – each of Robertson’s three lead breaks up the ante until we’re walking a tight rope stretched between two skyscrapers, feeling the air, the atmosphere and the jittery anxiety.

* “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”: Dylan introduced this song during the tour with a bit of a shaggy dog story about an obscure painter, Tom Thumb, who was going through his blue period.

* “One Too Many Mornings”: London, May 27. Dylan included the acoustic version on his 1964 The Times They Are A-Changing album. But in February 1966 Dylan and his band debuted an electric arrangement. This performance, typical of the 1966 tour, is notable for Robbie Robertson’s transcendent solo, and for the call-and-response style vocals of The Hawks when they answer the final line of each verse with “Ain’t it hard.” The beginnings of the vocal sound Dylan and The Hawks would find in the Big Pink basement the following year.

* “Like A Rolling Stone”: At the Manchester Free Trade Center, where the bootleg album that for decades was believed to have been recorded at the Royal Albert Hall was actually recorded, a guy in the audience famously shouts at Dylan, “Judas.” Dylan responds, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” And then to the band Dylan insists, “Play fucking loud.” What comes next is one of the greatest live performances ever caught on tape, a furious, exhilarating and majestic version of what was at the time a current hit, a song played over and over on Top 40 radio in the US: “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s amazing the Free Trade Center didn’t go up in flames. And then, ten days later, for the final concert of the tour, they turn “Like a Rolling Stone” into funeral pyre for all the retro folk music fans who just can’t accept that, as Dylan said earlier in the night, “things change all the time.”

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In  2012, Dylan referred to the Judas incident while addressing criticism that he hadn’t clearly acknowledged his lyrical sources for his latest (at the time) album, Tempest:

“Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing — it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable [sic] to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”

Not long after the tour ended – cut short by Dylan’s motorcycle accident, or perhaps the motorcycle accident was Dylan’s unconscious way of stepping off the insane touring treadmill that his manager, Albert Grossman, had him on – Robbie Robertson, speaking about the tour to a Saturday Evening Post writer, said, “We did it until we couldn’t do it anymore…”

In an introduction to a new exhibition of Dylan’s landscape paintings that opened in early November 2016 at London’s Halcyon Gallery, Dylan wrote of his 1974 comeback tour:

“In 1974 I played the first of many shows with The Band [previously The Hawks]—maybe in eight years. We were in a hockey arena in Chicago. There were maybe 18,000 people there. The Band and I hadn’t played publicly together since 1966 where our shows caused a lot of disruption and turmoil—a lot of anger. Now we were in Chicago starting up again. There was no way to predict what was going to happen.

“At the end of the concert,” he continued, “we had played over 25 or 30 songs and we were standing on the stage looking out. The audience was in semi-darkness. All of a sudden, somebody lit a match. And then somebody else lit another match. In short time, there were areas of the arena that were engulfed in matches. Within seconds after that, it looked like the whole arena was in flames and that all the people in the arena had struck matches and were going to burn the place down. The Band and I looked for the nearest stage exit as none of us wanted to go down in flames. It seemed like nothing had changed. If we thought the response was extreme on the earlier tours we played, this was positively apocalyptic. Every one of us on the stage thought that we’d really done it this time—that the fans were going to burn the arena down. Obviously we were wrong. We misinterpreted and misunderstood the reaction of the crowd. What we believed to be disapproval was actually a grand appreciative gesture. Appearances can be deceiving.”

If only that were true of Trump.

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Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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