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They’re Selling Postcards of the Stoning

Jeremy Kearney

Judas! From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall: A Historical View of the Big Boo, by Clinton Heylin, Route, 301 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1901927689

Looking back on his infamous world tour in 1966 when his performances were booed and jeered because he played with an electric band, Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 1978: “The audience no longer came to see me. They didn’t even see me, and I was standing right in front of them. They came to see the myth of Bob Dylan, and that’s all they saw. That myth could either please or disappoint them. But whatever happened didn’t have anything to do with me. Just with the myth.”

And as shouts of “traitor”, “fake”, “fraud”, “Elvis” and “We want Bob Dylan” punctuated concerts on a nightly basis, Dylan and his band played on, getting louder and louder – an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object. Bob Dylan was battling “Bob Dylan”.

It could be argued that he had played some part in the creation of this myth as he had changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan in 1961, and often told tales of varying accuracy about his early life. As Charles Nicholls in the London Review of Books commented: “Bob Dylan’s first album, recorded in New York in 1961, was simply called Bob Dylan. The creation of “Bob Dylan” – the persona, the sound, the look ‑ was as important as the record’s contents.” However, Dylan never suggested that his first persona was the only possible one and the next six album covers illustrate how his artistic identity developed and changed. From the young folk singer in love on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, to the self-confident musician on Another Side of Bob Dylan, to the hip beat poet on Highway 61 Revisited and the postmodern artist in the semi-blurred photo on Blonde on Blonde.

One of the places where both the creation and deconstruction of the early myth of “Bob Dylan” came into sharp focus was at the Newport Folk Festival in his three appearances there in 1963, ’64 and ’65. At his first appearance Dylan was the new folk sensation, not only singing his socially committed “protest” songs on acoustic guitar to great acclaim but also receiving the blessings of the leader of the American folk revival, Pete Seeger, and the “Queen of Folk”, Joan Baez. At the final concert of that festival Dylan was invited to lead some of the pre-eminent folkies of the time in a closing singalong, with the audience, of his recently released anthem “Blowing in the Wind”, and was firmly identified as the “voice of a generation”. At that time, the people listening to him were pretty certain they had found a new folk legend but perhaps if they had read a bit more closely what he had written for that year’s festival programme it might have given them pause for thought. In the piece, entitled “For Dave Glover”, an old musical buddy from Minnesota, Dylan wrote:

I’m still doin all the things I used to do I guess
But the difference is probably that now I really ain’t thinkin
about what I’m doin no more
I don worry no more bout the covered up lies and twisted truth in front
a my eyes …
I’m singin and writin what’s on my own mind now
What’s in my own head and what’s in my own heart.

Despite the acclaim, he was already starting to head somewhere else.

Following his enthusiastic reception the previous year, it was not surprising that Dylan was the star attraction at Newport in 1964 and had become the idol of the folk community. Such was the extent of his fame at that time that Ronnie Gilbert, a long-time member of the radical folk group The Weavers, felt confident enough to end her introduction to his set by saying to the audience: “And here he is, you know him, he’s yours – Bob Dylan.” But what she and the fans didn’t realise was that Dylan had moved on at great speed since his 1963 appearance. He had been on a revelatory road trip across the United States and made a drug-fuelled visit to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans that led to the writing of “Mr Tambourine Man”, the song which signalled the new artistic path he was on. By then he had also noticed the chart-based success of the Beatles electric guitar-backed harmonies and heard the Animals’ rock version of “House of the Rising Sun”, a song he had recorded on his first album. His artistic vision was now directed towards a different kind of music rather than the protest songs his fans expected. At the time of Ronnie Gilbert’s gushing introduction Dylan was only able to hint at his changed position by leaving some coded messages in the new songs he played from his yet unreleased Another Side of Bob Dylan – “All I really want to do / Is baby be friends with you” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe / It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for”. Even though the festival audiences were still delighted with his performances, the folk establishment was considerably less impressed and he received plenty of criticism in Sing Out, the main magazine of the folk movement, for having lost the political “edge” in his songwriting.

Forty years later, in his book Chronicles, Dylan made clear his feelings in response to that Ronnie Gilbert introduction, saying: “I failed to sense the ominous forebodings in the introduction. Elvis had never even been introduced like that. ‘Take him, he’s yours!’ What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.” However, even if his direct feelings only emerged later in his book, again there were fairly clear indications in the songs he wrote after Newport ’64 about how he was thinking. In songs like “She Belongs To Me” he hinted at who his artistic muse belonged to, and the lines “To keep it in your mind and not forget / That it is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to” (“It’s Alright Ma [I’m Only Bleeding]”) were also saying something about how he viewed his artistic responsibilities.

By the time he arrived at the 1965 Newport Festival his relationship to his earlier musical “self” was changing rapidly. He had returned from a solo tour of England in May where he had performed many of his older songs and although his concerts were very well-received by fans and critics he found them artistically unsatisfying. He later told Nat Hentoff: “I used to play these concerts. I used to say [to myself], ‘Well, would I come and see me tonight?’ … ‘No, I wouldn’t come’.” He wanted something different musically.

Dylan fell ill at the end of this tour and had more or less decided in his own mind to quit performing, but as he told a reporter in 1966, this changed when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”,

because I wrote that after I quit. I’d literally quit singing and playing, and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit twenty pages long and out of it I took “Like a Rolling Stone” and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that that was what I should do.

So by the time of the Newport Festival in July 1965 his recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” with an electric band had been released and was receiving extensive radio airplay. At the same time an electric version of “Mr Tambourine Man” by The Byrds was at number one in the charts. The previous March he had also released his half-acoustic, half-electric album Bringing It All Back Home, as well as two singles with a band. Therefore the fact that Dylan was “going electric” should not have been a surprise to the audience at Newport. Dylan always played his new songs there so it made sense that he would want to perform some of his latest material with a band.

The actual session played at Newport in 1965 is the stuff of legend (and numerous books). Some have said that Dylan coming out to play with his hastily put together electric group was the moment that ended the folk revival. The Newport Folk Festival was really Pete Seeger’s baby and he was the man who signified folk music for the American public. The story goes that when Dylan blasted out his electric version of “Maggie’s Farm”, Seeger desperately called for the volume to be turned down and said he was going to get an axe to cut the cables and had to be restrained. Years later Seeger’s own version of events was that he asked the soundman to lower the volume but he refused and that Seeger then said: “Damn, if I had an axe I’d cut the cable right now.” Whatever the truth, the image of an axe has long hung over this story. At the end of Dylan’s brief twenty-minute set the crowd were both booing and cheering: as one writer described it he had “electrified one half of the audience and electrocuted the other”. Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul and Mary, who was the MC for the evening, attempted to placate the crowd and he can be seen in Murray Lerner’s documentary on Newport, The Other Side of the Mirror, desperately trying to persuade him to play some more songs (on an acoustic guitar). As urgent discussions took place offstage, Yarrow stalled by telling the audience that Dylan “has gone to get his axe”, a common musicians’ term for a guitar. Dylan duly reappeared with an acoustic guitar and played two more songs, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr Tambourine Man, and as the audience were cheering what they thought was the return of the Dylan they knew and loved, he was probably thinking to himself “Listen to the lyrics, folks.” The reality was that Dylan had taken his axe to the supporting cables of the old folk edifice.

Having thrown down the gauntlet to the folk community, Dylan was now determined to pursue this musical direction and embarked on a series of concerts with electric bands, including an epic “world” tour, and also recorded two of the most influential albums in rock music. In the process he nearly destroyed himself both physically and emotionally, but musically it was an artistic triumph. Almost exactly a year later the crazy adventure came to a dramatic end as Dylan was injured in a motorbike accident and temporarily disappeared from the music scene.

This extraordinary period in modern music history is charted in gripping detail in Clinton Heylin’s new book Judas! From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall, which focuses particularly on the gruelling series of live performances of Dylan and his band (then called the Hawks but later to be very successful in their own right as The Band) as they travelled from the US mainland to Hawaii and onwards to Australia and then to Europe, playing forty-four concerts in ten different countries in four months. Heylin is the perfect author for such a book as he is one of the leading commentators on all things Dylan, having written a critically acclaimed biography, Behind the Shades; a major reference work on his recordings, Bob Dylan: The Complete Recordings Sessions; two books on Dylan’s songs, and more. It is, of course, no coincidence that this book has come out at the same time as a thirty-six-CD box-set of all the available live recordings of the 1966 tour, as Heylin has also written the booklet that comes with these albums. His knowledge of the recordings adds another dimension to the book as, having listened to them all in detail, he cross-references his analysis of the tour with the actual events at each concert. It is one thing to read about the booing, slow handclapping and catcalling that went with Dylan’s concerts but quite another to actually hear the commotion in real time.

John Bauldie, Dylan aficionado and founder of the first major Dylan magazine, The Telegraph, covered some of this ground thirty years ago in his book The Ghost of Electricity, but while he focused mainly on presenting contemporary responses to Dylan’s electric music there is little commentary. Heylin takes this much further and draws on his extensive knowledge of Dylan and his music to place the performances on the 1966 tour in the context of what else was happening in Dylan’s world. He interweaves discussion of the tour with analysis of the recording sessions of the two electric albums Dylan was recording over this period, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and shows how he struggled to find that “thin, wild mercury sound” he wanted. Eventually, for Blonde on Blonde, he went to Nashville with guitarist Robbie Robertson to record with the best session musicians there. One of the important aspects of the book is that as well as discussing Dylan’s music, both in performance and in the studio, it gives terrific verbatim accounts of what happened in the numerous combative press conferences Dylan conducted in the countries he was visiting and includes interviews with many of the participants, both reporters and fans. It is clear from Heylin’s account that throughout the tour Dylan was determined to defend his artistic and musical vision against all comers and one of the reasons so many of the concerts were recorded was that he and his band wanted to hear back the music they were creating and try and work out if it was them or the booing audiences who had gone insane. Heylin also describes the late-night sessions Dylan held with selected journalists and fans along the way, as an antidote to the heckling crowds and critical press, where he talked much more freely about his views on music and musicians.

In his introduction to Judas!, Heylin suggests that Dylan’s electric year “intuitively charts his self-conscious descent into Rimbaud’s ‘unknowable region’” and that such a journey, “a cante fable of Bob aboard his bateau ivre ... demands something else: a book’s worth of explication, if not a library’s”. And he has certainly risen to this challenge. Judging by the descriptions in the book of the sheer intensity of the performances on the world tour, with the continual booing and jeering at concerts, constant critical questioning by reporters of why he is doing what he is doing and widespread use of a variety of stimulants, Dylan appears to have given his visit to the “unknowable region” his best shot. He had been introduced to Rimbaud and other French poets by his girlfriend in the early ’60s, Suze Rotolo (who was photographed with him for the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and it was Rimbaud’s aesthetic that most attracted him. Rimbaud’s credo was that the true poetic vision could only be achieved by having “the discipline to reach and abide in the deepest and most authentic level of the self, however shocking and unacceptable this might be” and to accept “the systematic disordering of the senses”. How far Dylan had taken this on board was revealed at a late-night session with a friendly reporter in Australia when he told her that “He had come to know that he must go back inside himself, that everything that happens comes out of re-examination … You go down into the deeper self and go through it all and come out the other side, and then you are going to know.”

Talking about Rimbaud’s poetry, Iris Murdoch said that his language resembled a high-voltage electrical circuit overloaded to the point where it fuses and explodes in spectacular constellations. Not a bad description of Dylan’s music on this tour either. As the book makes clear, the question was, would he make it through to the other side or explode?

Judas! begins in the aftermath of Dylan’s “electric” performance at the Newport Festival as the folk establishment, fans, other musicians and music writers who were there started to respond to what they had heard. Much of the folk-versus-electric debate took place in the pages of the folk bible Sing Out, with most contributors lambasting Dylan for selling out. Tom Paxton’s article entitled “Folk Rot” was one of the kinder pieces. However, those writers that were supportive did their best to argue Dylan’s case. Paul Nelson, a co-editor of Sing Out, (at least until he wrote his piece) was forthright in his position: “Make no mistake, the audience had a clear-cut choice and they made it: Pete Seeger. They chose to boo Dylan off the stage for something as superficially silly as an electric guitar or something as stagnatingly sickening as their idea of owning an artist ... I choose Dylan. I choose art.” The battle lines were being drawn and the legendary story of that Newport performance was being created.

Over the next three months Dylan crisscrossed the States playing gigs in a variety of locations. He spent the time working out new songs and also getting together his live band. Heylin’s book vividly illustrates that not only was Dylan battling the sections of the audiences that were barracking him during live performances, but also the reporters and interviewers who were covering the tour. These interactions were especially fractious during the first part of the tour, as he was required to hold numerous press conferences in each city he arrived in to publicise the concerts and sell tickets. However, he had learnt from his experience of such conferences during his 1965 tour of England that verbally fighting with reporters was a zero sum game. Numerous examples of his verbal jousting appear in Don’t Look Back, the DA Pennebaker film of that tour where he can be seen shredding both a reporter from TIME magazine and from a student newspaper in Newcastle, but, as he quickly discovered, others would continue to ask the same trivial questions. Consequently, after his appearance at Newport in July 1965 and as he was getting together an electric band to play his new music, he was also adjusting his approach to the media. He had realised, as Heylin puts it, that “[a]nything he said to defend his new music or his right to artistic autonomy was destined to fall on stony ground”, and by the end of 1965 two press conferences he gave on the West Coast clearly showed that his performances in such events now “mirrored the edge his music had acquired”.

As had been the case for the previous couple of years, the focus of the questions was to either try to get him to define himself and his music or to take a position on political issues. Dylan was now well aware that any “straightforward” answer to such questions would only lead to him being labelled, dismissed or blamed. Therefore he adopted the verbal jujitsu tactics of going with the logic of the question to unsettle the questioner. At the first one in San Francisco, when one reporter asked how he would explain his role to “someone well over thirty” he responded by saying he wouldn’t know as he was “someone well under thirty. And my role is to just stay here as long as I can.” At the next press conference Dylan managed to keep a straight face when asked how many protest singers he thought there were and replied, “Oh, about a hundred and thirty-six.” In response to which the questioner still ploughed on, “Do you really think so?” “It’s either a hundred and thirty-six or a hundred and forty-two,” Dylan helpfully suggested. In Sydney, he was asked: “How would you describe yourself?” “I don’t describe myself. How would you describe yourself?” “I’ve no idea, but I don’t have to sell your talent.” “Neither do I. Write whatever you like.” In Sweden it was similar: “Do you like any of the protest singers who imitate you?” “No. Have you heard me sing?” “No, I haven’t.” “Doesn’t it feel strange to sit there asking questions about something you don’t know anything about?” As Dylan said to a questioner in another interview when accused of not giving proper answers, “I’m answering your questions as well as you can ask them.” Reading the transcripts now these interviews have a comedic, surreal quality as an enigmatic Dylan steadfastly refuses to accept categorisations of his music or his artistic identity.

One of the interesting things about the interviews is that even when Dylan was giving clues to where he was at, reporters would still focus on their own agendas. In Sweden he was asked about the song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and responded by saying it was “one of the protestiest of all things I ever protested against in all my protest years”, which in fact it is. He wrote it post-“going electric” at Newport and after the first series of American concerts where there was regular booing, and for clarity it even has a line that says, “They’ll stone you when you’re playing your guitar”. However the interviewer continued: “Why the title? It’s never mentioned in the song”. If that interviewer still needs to know, Heylin suggests that the song title is actually a take on some verses in the Book of Proverbs.

At times Dylan was driven to parody the whole interview process and at one conference he turned things around and started to interview the reporters, asking one woman, “What is your favourite music?” “Beethoven,” she replied, and Dylan the interviewer continued: “Yes, but I was thinking more of your favourite music.” “But it is Beethoven,” the woman protested. “Oh come on,” Dylan said, “what’s your favourite music.” Of course such antics made no difference and the reporters present became furious at his behaviour, leading to some more stoning in the next day’s press.

While Dylan and his band had had a hard enough time during the first half-tour, the concerts had all been in places where he had never performed before: Hawaii, Australia and Scandinavia, so the audiences were unsure what to expect. However, the second half was made up of two concerts in Ireland and twelve more in Britain (with a detour for one performance in Paris). Dylan had toured England on three previous occasions as a solo artist in 1962/63, ’64 and just a year before in ’65, so not only had many fans and reporters already seen him play live but there were huge expectations about his concerts.

As it happened, Dublin was Dylan’s first stop and, even though he had not been in Ireland before, Irish music fans, particularly those on the east coast, were well-versed in his music and his appearances in Britain from access to UK television and radio, as well as through British music magazines, and they had their expectations too. Dylan was arriving in a country that was just starting to engage with the modern world and the major cultural changes that were taking place, but had a lot of catching up to do. The IRA had recently blown up Nelson’s Pillar and free secondary education was still a number of months down the line. Musically, folk and beat clubs were flourishing in basements around Dublin (with renditions of early Dylan songs by some now well-known figures a regular feature) but showbands were the dominant force, presenting often impressive imitations of current pop and country and western hits to enthusiastic dancers. One of the main public controversies prior to Dylan’s arrival had been the Bishop of Clonfert protesting over the content of the Late Late Show by taking exception to a woman telling host Gay Byrne that she didn’t wear a nightie on her wedding night. It was probably just as well that the bishop didn’t attend Dylan’s Dublin show as he might have been seriously put out by some of the songs mentioning drugs, casual sexual encounters and the homoerotic undercurrents of “Ballad of a Thin Man”. What the bishop would have made of the woman who sometimes just wore a brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat is anybody’s guess.

Although Dublin had already had a screamfest during the Beatles’ visit a couple of years previously, the newspaper reporters were hardly ready for the arrival of electric Bob on May 5th for his show at the Adelphi Theatre on Middle Abbey Street. A press conference had been held a couple of days previously in London to preview the UK shows, which meant that the Irish reporters did not have the opportunity to engage in the usual one-sided battle of wits that had already taken place across Australia and Scandinavia. Therefore the first chance to see and hear Dylan in action was live on stage and, as Heylin describes it, the response was predictably scathing. Reporters from all the main papers were there and wrote articles saying things like “Oh What a Shock for Dylan Fans” (Sunday Independent), “The Night of the Great Let Down” (Evening Herald), and from the more academically inclined Irish Times, “Audience reaction, though very enthusiastic, of itself meant little, for most of those present were patently pre-conditioned, like a Beatle audience; one had to like Dylan so one obediently did.” Heylin is generally unimpressed by the pedantic and cloth-eared quality of much of the reporting on Dylan’s shows throughout the tour and he is no less critical of the Irish newspapers. The reviewer for the Evening Herald, the anonymous “JK”, wrote “Oh what a storm blew up when Dylan came to town! They booed. They whistled. They jeered. Someone groaned ‘pos-it-ively MOORE street’” (possibly more of an insult to the stalwart stallholders of Dublin than to Dylan). He also described Dylan as having “assumed the role of a slightly down-at-heel paperback edition of Mick Jagger” and that “[most] of what came out of the amplifiers was nothing more than watered-down R&B”. As a result he comes in for quite a roasting, with Heylin suggesting that his press pass didn’t give him a “licence to exaggerate, a permit to misrepresent and an excuse to display profound ignorance of the roots of R&B”.

Regardless of Heylin’s own criticisms, what is much more entertaining are the enraged responses that he documents of young Dublin Dylan fans to the newspaper reviewers’ reports. Mary Morrissey of Dublin 6 wondered if the Sunday Independent’s reviewer actually attended the show as “he says ‘there were a few diehards who clapped until the end’ … At the concert I attended,” she wrote witheringly, “at least ninety per cent of the audience applauded enthusiastically.”

Others took issue with JK’s review in the Herald, with a letter-writer signing as “The Ghost” challenging his view that all the audience were let down by Dylan’s performance, writing that “For [JK]’s information, the lack of appreciation was shown by a small ignorant group of people who knew no better anyway.” The prize for the most searing invective (almost Dylanesque in quality) must surely go to “Disgusted, Foxrock” who wrote in response to JK’s review:

My blood is boiling. I am fuming, astounded and positively disgusted that anyone could write such a load of rubbish! … He ends up [claiming], “the 2000-odd who came to hear him will remember it as the night of the Great Let-Down”. Well, I can assure you that I, a member of the audience, will do no such thing … [Dylan] belted out ingenious lyrics with an overpowering, driving, dynamic voice which shook the whole building … the whole effect was unbelievable, weird and wild.

While Dylan got a lot of support from the young letter-writers of Dublin, the response of the press to his performance and the barracking of a proportion of the audience was to be an indicator of what was to happen during the other concerts on the British leg of the tour. Heylin describes all this in some detail, as the music got louder and more intense in response to the antagonism of parts of the audience as they went from show to show. The band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, later summarised the tour by saying, “We travelled all over the world, and people booed us everywhere we went. What a strange concept of entertainment! We’d go to the next town and they’d boo us again and we’d pack up our equipment and go on to the next place and they’d boo us again.” It reached its pinnacle at the legendary Manchester Free Trade Hall concert on May 17th, 1966. This was the concert where a member of the audience was recorded on tape shouting out the word “Judas” at Dylan, which symbolised the vehemence with which some of his fans rejected his electric sound. Dylan’s response, also recorded, was vituperative: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar,” and turning his back to the audience he ordered the band to “Play fucking loud.” While it may not have fully impinged on Dylan’s consciousness at the time, it must have seemed like some kind of significant moment. How often is an artist accused of being responsible for crucifying an earlier version of himself? As Heylin records, Dylan certainly remembered the shout in an interview in 2012: “Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try and work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar?”

After Manchester there were still ten more days and five more concerts to go, and as Heylin says both the “relentless negativity…. [and] his drug regime were starting to wear him down”. But he was now beginning to get his retaliation in first. In Glasgow, in response to shouts of “We want Dylan”, he taunted the protestors, “Dylan got sick backstage and I’m here to take his place.” By the second night at the Royal Albert Hall on May 27th, the last concert of the tour, a clearly stoned Dylan, who was no doubt tired of being “stoned”, took the opportunity to hit back at those protesting. As an introduction to the song “I Don’t Believe You” (from the acoustic album Another Side of Bob Dylan), he said,

This is a song I wrote about three years ago. I like all my old songs. I never said they were “rubbish”. I don’t use that word … I wouldn’t use it if it was there on the street to use for free … It’s just that things change all the time. Everybody knows that … Anyway, this happens to be an old song. It used to go like that and now it goes like this – and rightfully so!

Before playing “Like a Rolling Stone” for one last time, having already told the audience he would not be coming back to Britain, Dylan ended with one last remark the audience could believe if they wished: “You’ve been very, very nice people … And, believe me, we’ve enjoyed every minute of being here.”

He’d finally made it to the end of the tour in one piece – just. But as Heylin’s book illustrates, the myth had almost consumed the artist and very nearly consumed the man.

Jeremy Kearney has lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for many years and is researching the cultural and music scene in Dublin in the 1960s and ’70s.

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