Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies!

by C. P. Lee

Dylan the magnificent is touring again and already CDRs are thudding through the letterbox – sometimes before he’s even played the gig! – I jest of course – But the speed with which recordings are becoming available, as CDRs, mini-discs, tapes and mp3s is beyond belief. A few weeks ago in an attic in Philadelphia we listened spellbound (while the hours, etc.) to a download of Bob and the guys playing Man Of Constant Sorrow, which had been recorded six hours earlier in Norway. Truly, we thought, this is a wonderful world. But, as has been pointed out in the pages of Freewheelin’ before, are we gaining something here or are we losing something?

Not that long ago going to see any artist touring, let alone Dylan, was a lottery. There might be some pre-tour publicity in the shape of an interview or an article, but very often you wouldn’t even know who was backing Dylan on his jaunts, let alone what the previous night’s set-list had been. Now we have the ‘Dylan Pool’ scientifically weighing up theoretical lists, web sites devoted to his various musicians, discographies, photographs, reviews, downloads of confidential contract riders published for All to see (nothing special as it happens), every intimate detail, no matter how small or insignificant, flagged up in cyberspace and floating on the breeze of conjecture.

As I’ve written and said before, none of this was around in 1966 when I first saw Dylan live. Just word of mouth and a typed sheet of paper in a record store window was all that was needed to sell-out the Free Trade Hall. The stupendously helpful publicity machine that was Albert Grossman’s office very rarely issued publicity photos – just look at the photograph of Bob used on The Beatles Sgt Pepper album cover. It dates from 1965, but the Beatle’s cover was shot in 1967! Bob and Albert were seldom forthcoming with information. What little bits that came out were gleaned by us from the music papers of the day, principally New Musical Express, and Melody Maker were the prime conduits for anything to do with Dylan. And those nuggets were few and far between. We were aware of the controversy surrounding Dylan’s ‘going electric’ at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival because we were able to read short items and snippets in appallingly coy gossip columns in the aforementioned papers – Columns like ‘The Raver’ in Melody Maker and ‘Alley Cat’ in The New Musical Express. ‘Alley Cat’ used phrases like ‘Petula Clark is infanticipating’, when the bright eyed British songstress got pregnant. You can imagine how they dealt with Dylan.

Before moving on to deal with the meat of this piece I’d just like to conclude this nostalgia fest with this observation – It might have been more exciting in the old days, not knowing what you were going to see. It certainly gave it an air of anticipation that seems harder to generate these days, but, hey, things have changed and it’s no use us looking back is it? Which is, of course, what I propose to do now.

A couple of years ago a tape of Dylan’s 1966 performance at the Sydney Stadium was unearthed. It was a gem, a real find. One almost felt like Howard Carter at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb when it was first played to me over the phone from thousands of miles away in Australia. I conjectured in the pages of Isis Magazine that the find might possibly be the last (recorded) word on the subject of Dylan’s most glorious period of experimentation and confrontation, but maybe, just maybe, there were other tape boxes hidden away in attics and garages that could shed more light on the times. The next thing I knew Genuine Live 66 appeared and, once again, it seemed that we had heard the last word. Could there be anything else out there? Well, not surprisingly, another recording has come to light – Bob Dylan and The Hawks at the Bushnell Memorial Auditorium, Hartford CT, October 30th, 1965.

Sadly the recording isn’t a soundboard like the majority of the material on GL66. It’s an audience tape made on a Woolworth’s battery operated reel to reel, an object that was reasonably common at the time. One of the major problems with this type of recorder is that they had an automatic level facility which would drop the recording volume when it hit a certain peak, so the final recording is prone to drop out at inconvenient spots. The other major problem, and one that’s still with us to this very day, is the fact that it’s recorded by a member of the audience in an auditorium – i.e. the taper’s surrounded by other attendees and they will inevitably make noises at inappropriate moments. Still, it all adds to the ambiance I suppose. Overall I’d say the quality is slightly inferior to the December Berkeley show, but very listenable never the less.

News about the existence of the tape emerged on rmd, the Dylan internet newsgroup. A guy posted that a friend of a friend had found it in a cupboard where it had been since virtually the day he’s recorded it. His sole proviso for making it available now was that it was to be distributed free of charge and as widely as possible. See, there are still good people around. A tree was immediately set up and it is now ‘out there’ and daily growing. Doubtless the greed head bootleggers will be copying it and selling it, but if you want a copy for nothing and you haven’t got one yet, please just ask me and I’d be happy to burn you one. Now – the big question – what’s it like?

Firstly, a socio-historical context. Hartford was played just over three months after Newport and the band consists of Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson and Helm, Kooper having jumped ship before the tour proper began. Helm was to go to in a few weeks time, to be replaced at first by Bobby Gregg and then for the 1966 world tour by Mickey Jones, but here at Hartford we have essentially the outfit as it was always envisaged... Post Newport we have the Hollywood Bowl recording as reference point, but that’s still with Kooper and Harvey Brooks on bass. Post Hartford we have the Berkeley concert and that one’s without Helm, so Hartford is of great historical significance, allowing us, as it does, another peek into the musical laboratory of Dylan’s alchemical factory, where the transmutation of Folk and R n B into that thin wild mercury music was taking place.

Levon Helm We found a way of performing with Bob. It was a hell of a challenge because he was still learning about a band. He would suddenly stop and break the beat, and we’d get confused and not know where we were. We’d look at one another and try to figure out if we were playing great music or total bullshit.

On the evidence provided by the recording, they were playing ‘great music’.

The concert is divided into two halves as per the rest of the tour, opening with a solo acoustic section. Dylan, it seems to me, was going out of his way to please those members of his audience that weren’t sure, or were unready for his electric persona. He seems quite happy here and throughout the following months to give them forty-five minutes in his ‘old style’ before plugging in. History records that by mid-1966 he was ready and willing to go full tilt into a completely electric set, abandoning the acoustic section altogether. Mickey Jones reports that Dylan told him the next phase of the world tour, which was to have started off at Shea Stadium in August and climaxed in Moscow, would be completely electric. A fascinating ‘what if?’

A quick note about the ‘shape’ of the recording – Several commentators have suggested that the taper(s) have ‘clipped’ the performances when they didn’t like the songs. I would suggest that it is more to do with the amount of tape on the spool and their desire to get a ‘snapshot’ of some of the numbers and ‘completeish’ recordings of others. This is particularly apparent in the electric segment as we shall see in a moment. I guess it’s also applicable to the acoustic set because, fascinating as it is, these are numbers that the tapers would presumably have anyway and what they’ve done is ‘archived’ the live performance in their own way. There are seven fragments of Dylan’s solo appearance. All the numbers are enthusiastically applauded by the crowd (as, we shall see, are the electric ones). All would be familiar to them from previously released records. This is October 1965, so we don’t get Visions of Johanna or Just Like A Woman.

I get the distinct impression that our friendly local neighbourhood tapers are waiting for the second half of the show and when that comes on, they don’t disappoint. It opens up with a full recording of Tombstone Blues and, crappy sound quality aside, it’s a blistering version that for my money, is far superior to the one off the officially released album where Mike Bloomfield supplied the lead guitar. Robertson and company lead the full out aural assault with all the energy and chutzpah one would expect from an outfit that had been playing together for so long. They clearly demonstrate that they’re the perfect backing group for Dylan. The surprise comes when the song mutates into a Who Do You Love? Bo Diddley based riff – Chunka Chunka Chunkacha! – the riff ‘borrowed’ by Buddy Holly for Not Fade Away, recently resurrected by Dylan on the European leg of the spring 2002 tour.

Next up is Baby Let me Follow You Down. Again, the first few bars in and the audience is applauding, well, at least those around the tapers. It is hard to gauge the overall audience reaction because the tunes are edited at the end so we don’t get to fully appreciate what was going down in the rest of the hall. The number is more or less as it would be played in 1966. It’s solid and when they lay it down – it stays there. The following number, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, is edited on the tape. Possibly they were beginning to get worried about whether they would have enough on the spool to get their ‘snapshots’. Enthusiasm is getting the better of them though when Dylan starts the opening of Maggies Farm, and they leave the tape rolling – Thank heavens.

It starts with just Dylan on his own strumming his Fender guitar and singing the opening two lines – then the band crash in en masse, all guns blazing. Again the audience appear to be happy giving it a big round of applause, and the song doesn’t let anybody down – thumping chord crashes on the end of line off beats punctuate Dylan’s litany of freedom.

Another crowd pleaser, It Aint Me Babe. The song, familiar from Dylan’s more recent past, has been arranged with thumping dynamics and almost baroque arpeggios on the keyboards. To my ears it sounds like Bob Dylan meets Liberace over half a cup of acid – superb, and unlike the straightforward Rock onslaughts that coalesced around the second half of the tour. Magnificent and frightening.

We know reach the only audible bit of heckling – A lone voice in the crowd shouts out “Folk music”, just as Dylan begins the opening chords to Ballad of a Thin Man. It’s almost as if they were planted in the crowd to shout at that specific point so ironic is the cry. The tapers let one verse through before shutting down their machine. Tape must have been getting too tight to mention at this point, so my guess is that they were saving themselves for the next number. Which just happens to be a devastating version of Positively 4th Street. This version is very similar to the record and to the Sydney performance except that Dylan sings it a lot better this time than he did in Australia. Like he really means it, man. The first proto-punk put down song in the annals of Pop history. All of which takes us to Dylan’s final offering of the night which is of course – Like A Rolling Stone. Sadly, our tapers can see that things are reaching the end, so they keep stopping and starting the tape, trying to catch bits and pieces of the verses. Then it finally does run out and the recording is over.

This is a definite must for us all. Even though the quality leaves a lot to be desired it is yet another quintessential Dylan performance, and an absolutely necessary addition to the archives of oblivion. Yet again I find myself asking – what else may be lurking, hidden in people’s garages and attics?

A final word that, in a way, takes us back to the beginning of this piece. By a strange coincidence this gig happened to be one of those little bits of information that came our way in 1965. And, what’s more, I remember reading the article. Well, it was actually more like a paragraph in the NME. Somebody in the States had sent a potted review of the gig and commented that the audience were shouting out things like – “Go back to England!” and “Get rid of the band!” – None of that is evident on the recording. With the exception of the ‘Folk music’ shout, there seems to be very little animosity, but certainly a great deal of enthusiasm. The dynamics of the recording equipment have to be taken into account here. Whatever, a great piece of history.