Tuesday, March 17, 2009

EBDS Special Post #2: The 1966 World Tour

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!


It seems impossible, even for those that lived it, to put Bob Dylan's 1965-1966 tours into any sort of context, even as the legends practically demand some sort of context, so as to not allow the shows Dylan played to reach a stature that would not so much obscure the music as swallow it whole, like Saturn devouring his son or something. After all, no less a Man of Import than Martin Scorcese chose to end his exceptional documentary on Dylan's career with Dylan's fabled performance of "Like A Rolling Stone" in Manchester's Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966 (complete with the "Judas!" moment, one of the most famous fan interactions in music history). The recording of that Manchester show, even after a decade of official release, still bears the stamp of legend, of generations of tape traders passing down copy after copy, even getting the date wrong because it makes the story that much cooler. Every new recording from the 1966 tour is greeted with slavish devotion from Dylan fans worldwide, and there are probably still folks attempting to break into Columbia's massive vaults so we can FINALLY get a full copy of the Dublin show we've heard so much about. The 1966 world tour - a tour that nearly ground one of the greatest musicians to ever live down into a pulp; a tour filled with controversy and anger and a lot of emotions you just don't get from a band playing music, for Pete's sake; a tour that gave us music of a kind that we may never hear again, for better or for worse - is dangerously close to being less about Dylan playing music on stage, and more about the legend of Bob Dylan; considering how muddled that legend tends to get, that's dangerous ground indeed.

The shows that Bob Dylan played between his first electric band concert at Forest Hills in 1965 and the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 did not take place in a vacuum, where people showed up and booed and cheered and did whatever else for no particular reason. They took place in an era where popular music was moving so fast that it seemed impossible to keep up, embodied in the spirit of a band that moved in two astounding years from the well-crafted pop ditties on A Hard Day's Night to the free-ranging mindblowers of Revolver with hardly any pause in between. And they took place at the point of a man's career when he decided that he was no longer satisfied with both a brand of music and its distinctive sound, but was happier to play music with amplifiers and to sing about whatever the hell he damn well pleased. And, to compound all of this, the bulk of the shows that man would play in 1966 were on the other side of the world, with an audience struggling to keep up with the changes he was going through, who only a year ago had demanded a set that played to his past while only glimpsing at his future. With all that coming together, I will say that it's hard for legends NOT to spring up immediately; after all, if there was a time for legends to grow, it'd be that time.

And yet, even with all those elements coalescing into a perfect storm, you still have to imagine what it must have been like to have been at one of those shows, to actually see that storm bearing down upon you. Let's say you're in Manchester, heading to the Free Trade Hall to see Bob Dylan that night. Maybe you saw an ad in the local paper, or your mate Nigel told you about it a few days ago. Apparently Bob had been in Liverpool a few nights ago - that must've been a blinder, yeah? You're a big fan of his acoustic records - you've worn out the grooves on Freewheelin' in particular, and you go to bed every night with "My Back Pages" dancing through your head. You've turned on countless friends to his music, his politics, his way of life. And, somehow, you can't really understand what this "Subterranean Homesick" whatever is blaring out of your transistor radios these days or why Dylan's on record playing loud guitar and going on about losers and cheaters and God knows what else. Still, Dylan doesn't show up in your hometown every day, and you regret not seeing him do "The Times They Are A-Changin'" last time around, so it'll be a treat to watch him play it this time. Hell, you'll make an evening of it - Dylan on stage, then a few pints with the boys. It's either that or another night in front of the telly, and all the programs are rubbish anyway. This will be a blast.

So imagine your surprise when you see Dylan on stage that night. He looks like he's had one too many late nights, bone-weary, thin as a rail, eyes burning with a sleepy intensity that only comes from the right mixture of drugs, and dressed like every Fancy Dan you ever hated seeing when you'd go down south to visit your Nan in the big city. But he's got that acoustic guitar, and that's all that really matters. Maybe the songs aren't exactly the ones you're hoping for - no "Hard Rain"? no "All I Really Wanna Do"? - but what the heck, you applaud as appreciatively as everybody else. Never mind that he's doing strange things to the songs, drawing out words and syllables in ways they were never meant to be drawn out, playing astounding and seemingly endless harmonica solos almost like he's having a laugh, and tuning his guitar for minutes on end between the songs, at least while he's not slurring his speech and muttering about God knows what. He's playing his songs the way they were meant to be played, without that annoying band mucking up the songs behind him. And when the 15-minute intermission comes, you head over to the bar to snag a pint and relax - the next half should be just as good, and surely THAT'S when he pulls out "Hard Rain".

And then...

It's about halfway through "I Don't Believe You" that you realize that this is not a joke, that Dylan's actually going to keep these gussied-up Yanks on stage with him and play this booming rubbish, and that the gentle acoustic set was merely a setup for this gruesome noise. Your dander immediately rises - betray us and play this garbage, will you? A significant portion of the crowd begins to slow clap, and you join along (not really sure why - whose bright idea is it to show extreme disapproval by slapping your hands together in rhythm?), as Dylan stares blandly at the crowd and keeps on singing and strumming his guitar. At one point he blathers into the mic until the naysayers quiet down, then calmly mutters "if you only wouldn't clap so hard" - and some of the punters actually laugh! Your anger boils at this waste of money - there's no way you'd have paid your hard-earned money to see this shit if you'd actually KNOWN - and you begin to shout at the stage, hurling every insult you can think of, just hoping that Dylan would finally feel the shame you desperately want him to, shoo his gang of hoodlums off the stage, and pick up his acoustic and begin anew. And finally, as you can feel the show winding down, your anger at full pitch as horrid rock song after horrid rock song have assaulted your senses, you realize that you can turn and storm out of the hall...

...or you could try shouting something else - something that might really hurt.

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.


Okay - I'm going to preface this part of the essay with a confession. The revelation that led me to put this section together only occurred to me a few months ago, and in fact may not be entirely new hat to many of you readers. In a way, it's almost embarrassing - this was right in front of my face for all those years, and I never got it until just recently. All the same, I think it's interesting to write about, and I hope that I do this little theory justice. We shall see.

One thing we all know about the 1966 tour is just how much torment, both physically and psychologically, was laid upon our hero's head during his sojourn across the world and elsewhere. Just about any photograph of Dylan not on stage taken during that time, when he was without his metaphorical suit of armor and at his most vulnerable, bears out how brutal a toll he was suffering during that time. The hollow cheekbones poking out of his flesh, the eyes puffy and sunken from lack of sleep, pale skin from days writing songs in hotel rooms and nights pumping out music wired to the gills - all of that belied just how tough things were for him. Imagine being in his shoes, taking drugs with something close to relish, playing killer sets night after night, and getting the shit booed out of him for it. And I would never wish that on anybody again.

And yet...you do have to wonder about that torment, don't you? After all, Dylan was a big boy back in 1966 - he certainly had to know that it was not good for you to take a pharmacy's worth of crap and then stay up all night banging away on his typewriter with Robbie Robertson. He was certainly well aware that he was going to be booed just as hard in Cardiff or wherever as he was in Pittsburgh, or Boston, or any of the places where he'd debuted his electric band (with a few notable exceptions - the Hollywood Bowl show is exceptionally free of audience abuse). And, of course, it's certainly possible that he just didn't care about what was going on with him in those years, that he knew that he was hurtling over a cliff with his wild lifestyle and seemed to welcome that cliff with open arms. It's hard to feel sorry for a man that's actively seeking to kill himself, even when he knows that's exactly what he's doing.

And then there's this. One thing that always bothered me about the 1966 World Tour is that, from just about every show I managed to get my grubby hands on, nothing ever really seemed to change. You had some more widely varied setlists in 1965 as the original touring band was finding its feet, and there was an occasional surprise like the "Positively Fourth Street" from Sydney (one time they actually played "Positively Fourth Street" before "Like A Rolling Stone" - a miscalculation, if you ask me), but basically the fifteen songs played in Manchester were the fifteen songs played all throughout the world tour. And, the more you listen to the shows, you start to realize just how academic some of the changes between the shows themselves actually can be. Sure, you're obviously going to have your favorites based on performance, whether it's a really superb "Mr. Tambourine Man" harmonica solo or a particularly driving version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (for example, my electric set of choice has always been the explosive Liverpool set, between the hard-charging performances, the "there's a fellow out there looking for a savior" bit, and the great story of the lady walking to the stage and handing Dylan a note that said "tell the band to go home"). The asides to the crowd, the way Dylan dealt with slow clapping, Dylan coughing and tuning away for eternity on end - all of these became almost like catchphrases on the tour. Hell, even the performances bore signs of this, with Dylan yelling "all right!" at certain points, shoving in those incredible/interminable harmonica solos...even Robertson & Co.'s solos tended to sound the same, show after show, night after night.

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.

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Anonymous said...

Ooooo, errr... the Basement Tapes? That's going to take you 'til Thanksgiving! (and then a few more will be found).

I don't think that I'll live long enough for your review of "Infidels".


Unknown said...

Wasn´t the note at Manchester; along with "Judas"?

No mention of Glasgow. Sadly.

I´ve been looking at "Scorcese programme 2" recently and Glasgow figures several times; off-stage. The rush off stage and out the door into the limo is labelled as Newcastle. I don´t know about the filmed performance, but the policeman´s diced cap (viewed in a blur) precludes England.[In 1966 it certainly does.] Also we see Bob outside the North British Hotel, by Queen Street Station on Friday morning, promising to be back in a month. Then there is all the stuff on ETD: the hotel room songs, the police dog show in George Square and the prurient visit to the suicide location in The Trossachs(?)

Amazing, in all these circumstances, that there is no documented tape (video or even audio) of the performance that night. (Yes, of course I booed. We all had our rĂ´les to play, didn´t we?)

Anonymous said...

there is a widely circulated video of a complete 'thin man' that most likely is from the glasgow show