Wednesday, September 28, 2005

When Dylan Went Electric

Martin Scorsese's documentary ("No Direction Home") on Bob Dylan aired on PBS Monday and Tuesday evening. I missed parts of the first night as I was tempted to watch the KC Chiefs who were getting womped by Denver, but caught all of the second part. It's a masterful and intriguing film, a must for every Dylan fan. For me the climax of the film was Dylan's decision to go electric.

Norm Geras had an interesting question
The people who booed Dylan during his 1966 tour of the UK, and some of whom were seen speaking to camera - saying his new stuff was rubbish, he'd sold out, and so forth - looked to be about the age I was in 1966. That means (I deduce) that they're about my age now. So, does anyone actually know someone who booed Bob Dylan in 1966? Better still, does anyone remember being one of the booers?
The Independent did track down the chap who yelled "Judas" during Dylan's Manchester perfomrance in 1966.

We did learn something in the documentary about those who booed Dylan electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. This account from the site is by Peter Stone Brown.

That night at the evening concert, Dylan, in a leather jacket and white shirt with snap-tab collar, launched into "Maggie's Farm" and in the three minutes it took to play the song changed music completely. Many in the crowd didn't like what they heard – whether it was the rock and roll band or the inadequate sound system remains a topic of debate – and booed. Dylan did two more songs, the early version of "It Takes A Lot To Laugh" (titled by some "Phantom Engineer") and his current single, "Like A Rolling Stone," and walked off the stage. Called back to the stage by Peter Yarrow and performing alone, he sang "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."

Thirty-seven years later the controversy of what went on that night still rages with much revisionist history. Some newspaper articles claim that Alan Lomax got in a fistfight with Dylan's manager Albert Grossman over it. They did have a fistfight, but it was over Lomax's introduction to the Paul Butterfield Band, not Dylan. The most legendary story is that Pete Seeger looked for an axe to cut the sound cable. According to Seeger in an interview published in Gadfly magazine, he said to the person doing the sound, "Clean up that sound so we can understand the words," and they shouted back, "No, this is the way they want it." I said, "Goddamn it, if I had an ax, I'd cut the cable." Not all that surprising since Seeger toyed with electric guitars in the forties and there were electric guitars on the albums The Weavers recorded for Decca Records, not to mention that various other performers including Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash had appeared at Newport with bands. Some contemporary writers, based on tapes of the show, are claiming no one booed. However all press accounts at the time as well as people I've spoken to who were there said there was booing and shouting.

There's also an account by Robert Shelton from his bio of Dylan, No Direction Home, which backs the traditional story. On the other, Bruce Jackson, one of the directors of the Newport festival, says it ain't so.

When I watched the Tuesday episode it sure sounded like booing to me. Of course, I'd like to hear the entire tape, which is apparently available on a bootleg. Contrary to the covnentional interpretation, Dylan's vocals didn't sound all that distorted. Maybe some modern day re-mixing cleaned things up.

One thing for sure, an older Pete Seeger sounded pretty unrepentant about his negative reaction. There was an instant there when you could imagine the gentle folk singer as cultural commisar. Yes, Pete and his pals were Communists or close enough to have cheated the party out of dues if they never filled out a card.

Pete's dad and step-mother were modernist, atonal composers, until they adopted the political aesthetics of the CP which decreed the superiority of folk melodies to commercial music. Interesting that Henry Ford, America's leading capitalist, anti-Semite, and opponent of unions, was another patron of traditional song and dance.

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