Author's note: And now, to cap off 1966 Week here at EBDS, is my own little essay about the 1966 World Tour. I hope that you all enjoy it - believe me when I say that this version was not the first I'd set to paper (so to speak). Next week will be the resumption of individual song posts, with "Positively Fourth Street", "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", and then a dip into the wild and wonderful world of The Basement Tapes. Hope to see you then!
And that, to me, is the real element of the 1966 tour that deserves more attention. The battles that Dylan had with his audiences are known the world over, as much the calling card for the '66 tour as the music itself. But, as silly as it seems now, we need to remember just how hurt those people were that booed him, and clapped slowly, and shouted epithets, and compared him to history's most evil traitor. I've given my share of ribbing to the more serious folk fans of Dylan's audience, but I'll never doubt their sincerity, their devotions to the causes that matter to them, and how painful it must have been for their most powerful voice to do a runner and head over to the worst possible ilk he could ally himself with. They came to see their hero, and they saw a villain in his place - worst of all, many of them had no idea that transformation had even happened, and that the hero had left a long time ago. And they booed, and cursed, and damned themselves to the wrong side of history forever and ever. There's something poignant about that, I would say.
Now, there could certainly be some good reasons for this - no time to rehearse between the songwriting and drug use; Mickey Jones replacing Levon Helm and making the learning of new songs pointless; hell, maybe the band just didn't feel like changing shit up if they were going to take a beating all night. But I think it goes further than that. I mean, considering that Dylan always started with that acoustic set, almost like lulling his audience to sleep before springing his trap...or the fact that he almost always has to say "it used to be like that, but now it goes like this"...or that Robbie Robertson's or Garth Hudson's solos practically never deviated from night to night...that definitely has to count for something. Think about the songs that he played - absolutely no folk songs, outside "Baby Let Me Follow You Down", along with the recasting of some acoustic favorites into electric beasts - and why he chose to play the songs that he did play. And then we've seen what Dylan has done for the rest of his career from the face-painted manic carnival of the Rolling Thunder Revue to the fire and brimstone bully pulpit rants of the 1979 gospel tour to whatever Masked and Anonymous was supposed to be, and things start to come a little more into focus. And then we finally remember that famous Dylan quote - "I'm just a song and dance man" - and things become crystal clear.
What the 1966 World Tour has come to represent, at least to me, was Dylan creating a piece of performance art the likes of which we've never seen. Every bit of his show, from the opening bars of "She Belongs To Me" to the final cymbal crashes of "Like A Rolling Stone", was carefully cultivated for the maximum impact in terms of audience reaction, both from an enjoyment standpoint (for his electric fans) and in sheer provocation (for his betrayed acoustic fans). Every "offhand" remark, every biting guitar solo, and every note pounded out by his band had a meaning, like lines in a particularly wicked two-act play. And though there may be room for deviation - like, for instance, a muttered aside about a folk music guitar, or a droll little tale about a Mexican painter - the script was faithfully adhered to, night after night, by the poet and his players. And the result was magical, every night, just as much as it was provocative and even vicious at times. So maybe you can't have too much sympathy for the worn-down Dylan of 1966. After all, if he didn't want the boos, he shouldn't have written out those lines.
Now, just because the 1966 World Tour was not strong in terms of deviation, that doesn't mean that every performance was totally rote and interchangeable. Just like you can catch the Royal Shakespeare Company on a good night or on a great night, fans of the 1966 tour have their favorite nights, and even their favorite performances within those nights. The beauty of music (aside from, well, its beauty) is its subjectivity - we can talk about "intensity" and "great solos" all we want, but in the end it's simply our own personal preference, sparked by something in our minds we can't even name, that leads us to what we like and what moves us on that level that music moves us. And that's why we can say that the Liverpool electric set, or the Sheffield acoustic set, or Edinburgh's "LARS", are the highlights of a tour practically littered with highlights.
And that, surely, is why the hunt for 1966 recordings (in good sound, of course - as nice as Away From The Past is to have, I really don't want my listening experience to be a *chore*) has continued for over four decades, even with scads of great sounding live recordings out there, even with a flippin' OFFICIAL LIVE RELEASE, for Pete's sake. There's that belief that, no matter how good the stuff we already have is, there's got to be that one blowaway show hidden in the vaults somewhere that will really knock us off our feet, that will make Manchester sound like an off night, and will open up the secrets of the universe and reveal the meaning of life. I mean, look at the stuff we already have! Astonishing performances of "Visions of Johanna", full-tilt runthroughs of "I Don't Believe You", the single performances found on b-sides and Biograph - surely there has to be better stuff that we've never heard, right? Until the full tour is finally out there for all of us to hear, we'll never know. But it's as close to the Holy Grail as us Dylan fans get - so many amazing songs out there, and still we need more.
Personally, I could live without that many more acoustic performances - I've gone back and forth over how I feel about the acoustic sets for years, and I've finally decided that I really do like them, but there's still a little standoffishness I hold towards them even today. For one thing, I've always felt like there was a little meanness to those performances, like Dylan went out there thinking "I'm going to really stick it to those folk weenies" and then went at that full hog (and I'd think so even without having heard the "folk music guitar" dig). It's not that I don't think he's enjoying himself, but he's enjoying himself in the way that a kid might enjoy holding a scrap of meat just out of the reach of a hungry dog. And yet there's still so much craftsmanship and genuine energy in those performances, between Dylan's relish in snapping off those syllables and his genuinely soulful harmonica blasts (winding and sometimes boring they may be), that it's hard not to like them in even the smallest way. You can find some real beauty in those performances, and I'll never say anything different.
But it's the electric performances, like I assume it is for most of you, that are the real draw of the 1966 tour. Listening to these performances, even today, is like being swept up in an angry, noisy wave, where every song seems to flow into each other with natural ease even as they clatter and burn with powerful emotion. And that emotion, to me, is what really gives the electric sets the extra oomph and a power the acoustic performances (for all their strengths) never quite reach. With the acoustic sets, Dylan's only interested in the songs for his own sake and performs accordingly - he could give a shit if anybody in that audience likes them. But with the electric performances, there's the feeling that he wants them to be loved, not just by the fans that enjoy his electric stuff, but by those that proved so hard to convert - maybe he knew he couldn't convert them, but damned if he wasn't going to try. And that fervor fed into the band, leading them to crank out powerful, thunderous arrangements. I dare you to take the eight songs that make up those electric sets (nine if you want to include "Positively Fourth Street") and find any arrangements from those songs, from any other year of Dylan's long and storied touring lifetime, that better the arrangements from over forty years ago. That takes some strong doing, and all credit in the world goes to the Hawks and Mickey Jones for turning those songs into monsters on stage.
And then, with one ill-fated motorcycle ride in New York, it was all over. Dylan would go into seclusion, the Hawks would move on to better things, and the madness surrounding the 1966 World Tour (if not the stories of the shows themselves) would slowly fade away. It would be 30 years until that madness could be revisited, thanks to Columbia and their exceptional vault of tapes. In those thirty years, tapes of the concerts would be passed around like copies of the Bible in the Middle Ages, to be heard and cherished by the chosen few, building a legend that would grow as every year passed on. I consider us all very lucky to have those shows, and to be able to go back forty years to a night where Dylan would confront both his past and his future, in fifteen incredible songs. We'll never again see the likes of it.