So much about our reactions to this record – or, at least, my reaction to it, but I suspect yours, too – comes down to its place in the history, the mythology, of rock ‘n’ roll. This is one of those albums where not knowing anything about the circumstances in which it was recorded really does put you at a disadvantage when trying to understand what you’re hearing. So I need to begin by going over some of the context in which Dylan and the Hawks toured. Many of you will know this all already. My apologies. I’ll try to be brief.
At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan played a short acoustic set on the Saturday night and decided that he wanted to play electric the next night, with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Alan Lomax – festival organiser, esteemed song collector and son of the even more esteemed song collector John Lomax – had been disparaging about them when introducing them*, angering Dylan and many younger musicians present. Perhaps Dylan just wanted to be provocative. He was certainly that. Dylan and his pick-up band played primitive, barely rehearsed versions of Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and Phantom Engineer. Some cheered, some booed. Lomax was enraged, Pete Seeger said he wanted to cut the power cable with an axe, and Dylan left the stage after three songs, only returning to play It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue after he was practically begged to by Peter Yarrow.
See? So much mythology already, and we’ve not even got to England yet.
Mary Martin was assistant to Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. She was born in Toronto, and on her trips back home would head to Yonge Street to watch matinee performances by her favourite band, Levon & the Hawks. They’d previous backed up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins but had struck out on their own, looking to extend themselves. When she heard that Dylan was looking for a band, she recommended the Hawks. Duly impressed, Dylan invited Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm to play with him, bassist Harvey Brooks and organist Al Kooper, and they did a couple of shows together at Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl before embarking on a full tour. Soon, Bob got to know the rest of the Hawks, taking them all on the road when Kooper and Brooks dropped out of the tour after two shows citing safety concerns.
The gigs were stressful, with Dylan’s electric music not always going down well with audiences. Helm was soon out, too. He later said it was the only time he found he couldn’t follow his own maxim and whistle while he worked. It was one thing to be booed at home, he told Richard Manuel. Quite another to go thousands of miles from home just to be booed there, too. He was replaced by Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff, and then Mickey Jones.
Jones was an interesting fit for Dylan. Formerly Trini Lopez’s drummer, Jones had a degree in business administration, and was pudgy and not all that hip: a slightly oafish guy with a slightly oafish style behind the drum kit. Compared to the graceful Levon Helm, Jones played like a caveman. Yet, for the increasingly cantankerous Dylan, fed up with booing crowds and keen to just drown them out with sheer noise, Jones was perfect. So what if he only had two drum fills in his locker? He hit hard and played those fills with authority. Dylan and a band that was no longer really the Hawks (and certainly wasn’t yet The Band) went to Europe.
The gigs there were a mixed bag. Some towns seemed more receptive to Dylan’s electric music than others. Legend long had it – a legend kept alive for decades by bootleggers – that everything came to a head on the final night of the tour at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where, near the close of a particularly spirited and aggressive electric set, someone in the audience called Dylan “Judas”, and Dylan responded with a furious Like a Rolling Stone – the last song of the last night of the tour. Mic drop.
As I keep saying, so much myth. The “Judas” incident did happen, but earlier in the tour, in Manchester, at the Free Trade Hall. (Audio of the Royal Albert Hall show does exist; by then, Dylan and the Hawks sound tired. Some of the aggression has gone from the music, and Dylan struggles vocally).
In 1998, the Manchester gig – long bootlegged – was released officially by EMI as Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. And that, finally, is what we’ll be talking about today.
Like all the shows on the tour, the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig was split into two sets. The first was played by Dylan alone, just guitar, voice and harmonica. For the second, he was joined by the Hawks: Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, Rick Danko on bass and Mickey Jones on drums.
Two albums and five singles since Dylan started incorporating electric instruments and full-band arrangements into his recorded music, it seems unlikely that audience members would have expected The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Oxford Town or even something like It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which while fitting in to Dylan’s protest-song oeurve is full of subjective, poetic imagery. But, if anyone had been expecting those songs, they’d have been disappointed – even by his acoustic set. Dylan played seven songs, of which three were from the still-to-be-released Blonde on Blonde. Most were solo renditions of songs whose studio recordings featured a band. All were deeply personal, gnomic and surreal – songs that defied any imposition on them of a narrative. As much as he would during the electric set, Dylan pleased himself when playing acoustic.
There’s an uncanny quality to Dylan’s performances throughout the acoustic set: his voice is slurred, thick, tired, as if in slow motion compared to his guitar. His harmonica playing is something else again: riveting, filled with tension and melodic surprises. It’s consistently the best thing about the acoustic set in Manchester. He does a creditable job on all the songs (the idea, raised by Robert Christgau and some other critics that, in Christgau’s words, “the folk set stinks” is nonsense on two fronts; it’s not folk, and it doesn’t stink), but inevitably songs like Visions of Johanna feel like preparatory sketches compared to the oil-painting masterpieces that are the recorded versions.
So the folk purists (we’ll come back to them) wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted from either half of the show. At no point in any of these songs does Dylan make any political point other than assert his right to perceive his world his way. What, then, was different about the acoustic set, other than the method of presentation gesturing at folk/protest? Why was that half of the gig received equitably enough, but not the second? And anyway, isn’t asserting the validity of your own perception a form of protest?
Dylan reappeared for the second half of the concert with the Hawks, and after tuning up, the band kicked into Tell Me, Momma – a song that Dylan never recorded in the studio and that never reappeared in his set after the 1966 tour.
On this song, Mickey Jones could almost pass as Levon Helm – all cantering kick drum and triplet fills. Dylan sounds like a different person to the world-weary soul who’d trudged through the acoustic set: listen to him deliver the “ohhhh” that begins the third verse: he sounds ready to helicopter off into the rafters. Robertson’s lead lines are, of course, to the fore, but Hudson, Danko and Manuel are doing great support work, too (a note for fans of Manuel’s underrated soul- and R&B-inflected piano: this is one of the few songs where he’s particularly audible).
The audience don’t sound delighted by the performance, but there’s no booing or slow handclaps either. Which makes Dylan’s drawled – and clearly pre-rehearsed – intro to the next song (“This is called I Don’t Believe You. It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”) sound like a provocation. If he had been aggrieved at the response his new music drew from some quarters, he didn’t always help himself with his on-stage demeanour.
Originally one of my favourites, this performance is one I’ve come to feel differently about over the years. Yeah, there’s a power to Dylan’s vocal (this is the Dylan of a thousand parodies: hitting the last word of every line ludicrously hard, seemingly making his mind up about which note to go for at the very last second), and the band, particularly Danko, rock viciously hard. But nowadays, even given the undeniable vigour, I find that Dylan’s squalling harmonica gets wearying, particularly as he plays over Robertson constantly. And something about the song has paled for me. Perhaps it’s just not that strong as a piece of writing. As theatre, though, it’s quite something, and Dylan’s delivery is incredibly intense. He was clearly working through something with the song: with one obvious exception that we’ll come to, no other song in the set has the same level of spit and vitriol.
The first wave of slow handclaps break out after this song, so perhaps the audience could feel Dylan’s hostility and decided to feed it back to him. While the set was likely preplanned, Dylan’s electric adaptation of Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, the traditional song he’d recorded on his first album, once again seemed to be making a point. It’s pretty great, though. Robertson gets to do something other than claw angular noise out of his guitar, and Manuel’s solo (his only one of the whole gig) has some very cool R&B licks in it.
An excellent Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues follows. Danko is, again, crucial and his rumbling bass underpins the whole thing as Dylan’s at-the-end-of-my-rope vocal (the shudder he injects into “I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot” is goosebump stuff) and turns the R&B-flavoured Highway 61 Revisited cut into something desperate and sick-sounding.
Afterwards, someone in the audience shouts something as Dylan begins to introduce the next song, and a slow handclap breaks out but just as quickly dies away again, but there’s clearly some disquiet: hecklers call things out (none of which I can hear quite clearly enough to identify) and others seem to answer them in disagreement. Eventually someone says something that raises a large cheer and a fast handclap, but Dylan and the Hawks just roll over them with what must surely be the best version ever of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; so alive, so powerful, so funny – it makes the Blonde on Blonde recording sound like it was played on toy instruments by a group of matchstick men.
On One Too Many Mornings, I find myself wishing for a subtler drummer than Mickey Jones, but it’s nice to hear Danko harmonising with Dylan on the word “behind” at the end of each chorus (the only backing vocal in the whole gig, I think, unless I’ve missed one). Ultimately, though, One Too Many Mornings sounds a bit insubstantial in the company of the Tom Thumb’s Blues, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, et al. Many have speculated that Dylan included it because the line “you’re right from your side and I’m right from mine” could be repurposed as another comment on his going-electric controversy. Could well be, but speculating on the motivations of someone as mercurial (and, it should be said, as drug addled) as mid-1960s Bob Dylan is a fool’s game.
Again, the slow handclaps break out after the song finishes, and what sure sounds like abuse and invective is hurled at the stage. Which is when Dylan sat down at the piano to play Ballad of a Thin Man – his “furious, sneering, dressing-down of a hapless bourgeois intruder into the hipster world of freaks and weirdoes” (to borrow Andy Gill’s useful phrase).
It is, as studio drummer Bobby Gregg commented to Dylan, a nasty song, and this is a particularly nasty version of it, especially as Dylan’s piano mike is, for whatever reason, a lot quieter than his front-of-stage mike, especially in the opening verse. But somehow the half-submerged vocal only seems to make it more vicious. Mickey Jones gives the drums a ferocious pounding – those snare flams before the start of the second verse just leap out of the speakers – and Garth Hudson provides creepy-as-hell organ commentaries on Dylan’s bizarre scenarios. It’s possible that Hudson never played better; this is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.
Then somebody shouts “Judas” at Dylan.
This moment, one heckle near the end of the gig, is as much as anything the reason why we’re still listening to it nearly 55 years after it happened: one insult from an angry, disillusioned fan that hit Dylan particularly hard.
Obvious things first. Bob Dylan is Jewish. The majority of his fans presumably knew that. His real name – Robert Zimmerman – was common knowledge. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus has been used for centuries by antisemitic Christians to justify their bigotry. It still is; Mel Gibson, unforgiveably rehabilitated by Hollywood, provides only the most famous recent example of Catholic anti-Jewish bigotry.
To have called Dylan a traitor would have been one thing; to call him a traitor in such a racially aggravated fashion was something else again, and Dylan’s hurt and anger is palpable. If we assume the best of the man in question – that he was thoughtless and not actually trying to be racist – it was still a colossally stupid thing to say, and the fury of the following version of Like a Rolling Stone is completely understandable, and to the extent that Dylan’s ire is aimed at this one man, it’s deserved.**
Anyhow, Dylan is so stung that after replying “I don’t believe you” (the amount of time he spends delivering the word “believe” suggests he really doesn’t; this isn’t Dylan going for rhetorical effect), it takes him another 10 seconds or so to deliver a riposte. All he can manage – this man, so famously quick and biting in his wit – is “You’re a liar”. After which, he tells the Hawks to “play fucking loud”, and they do.
Probably no rock group had played louder at that point, in Britain at least. One of the men who has claimed responsibility for the “Judas” insult, John Cordwell, argued years later that the volume was what bothered him. Dylan and the Hawks were so loud you couldn’t hear the words, and for a folkie, that was a major transgression. He also contended that the sound in the room was nothing like as clear as the recording taken from the mixing desk. Both assertions are plausible, not that that excuses the language he used to express his displeasure.
If Dylan did break the fragile covenant that exists between folk musician and audience (musician is not a performer or a star; musician is not separate to or more important than the audience; musician is merely servant of the song, etc.) by plugging in and turning up, this is the moment where there was no going back.
Righteously furious, the version of Like a Rolling Stone that follows the “Judas” incident threatens to come apart all the way through. Dylan doesn’t so much sing as yell. Mickey Jones plays the same violent eight-stroke (or sometimes 16-stroke) snare fill at the end of nearly every line of the song and hits his cymbals so hard it’s a miracle they survived the assault. It has none of the R&B underpinnings of the studio cut. It’s just a solid block of force; heavy metal avant la lettre. If you’re not into it, it’s completely intolerable. It’s magnificent, it’s righteous but it’s also a line being crossed.
When I first heard this record, I was completely gobsmacked by it. I’d heard nothing as intense. I listened to it over and over for months. But of course, the music derives a large part of its power from the context – the myth – that surrounds it, and once that’s familiar and taken for granted, some of that power does dissipate, and it’s a hard recording to fit into your life unless you go to it wanting to engage in the mythology surrounding it. Really, part of the reason I chose it for this series was to see if writing about it made me engage with all the extra-musical stuff the way I did when I first heard it.
To my surprise, it did. It made me recall how I felt hearing it at 21, a budding Dylan fanatic, eagerly on the side of questing, visionary Dylan against those unimaginative dullard folkies. Later I became a dullard folkie myself, and began to understand the reservations that some of them had about his electric music and the sinister aspect of crushing resistance to it with sheer brute volume.
While it’s obviously an important record – much more so than many of his studio albums – it’s not one about which I feel unambiguously positive. It doesn’t showcase the best of the Hawks, it’s not subtle, warm, friendly or communitarian. There’s always a nihilistic edge to Dylan’s absurdity that’s juvenile when it’s not just silly. But for all that, its power is undeniable. The effect of Dylan’s collapsing the walls between pop and folk echoes down the decades, and can still be felt today.
Dylan on stage in Manchester (l-r Rick Danko, Dylan, Mickey Jones, Robbie Robertson)
*In Maria Muldaur’s telling, Lomax “introduced the Butterfield band as a group that was purely imitative, asking ‘would we put up with it anyway?’ or something to that effect”. Others, including Joe Boyd, who was working the festival as a sound engineer, said Lomax referenced the great blues music that the audience had already heard that day, then said something like “let’s see if these boys can play this hardware at all”, referencing the amplification that was anathema to him and many other folk-blues purists.
**Who was the man? The likeliest subject appears to be John Cordwell, then a trainee teacher living in Manchester, but Keith Butler also claimed to have been the heckler. Butler was shown in Eat the Document, having walked out of the gig, telling a reporter: “Any pop group could do this rubbish. It were a bloody disgrace. He wants shooting. He’s a traitor.”