by C. P. Lee

Grass Eye


In the summer of 1969, as Roy Harper so famously pointed out – nobody had any money, even for going to a festival. True to the spirit of the times I was a hippy, having dropped out of college and returned to Manchester to be part of the ‘Alternative Society’. I was an active member of the Cultural Revolution that was sweeping around the Western world, possessed of an evangelical fervour in the determination to tear down the walls of straight society and build a New Jerusalem on the rubble of the Old Order,. Inspired by the rhetoric of Leary and Neville, I eagerly and energetically pursued the Politics of Pleasure, believing totally in the maxim that through ‘dope, rock n roll and fucking in the streets’, ‘The Man’ would melt away. – After all, hadn’t the Blessed Lizard King told us that “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers!”? Naïve now, I know, but at the time I really believed you could stop a .38 with a 25 – Kind of like the shattered remnants of the Plains tribes believing that their Spirit Shirts could repel the cavalry’s bullets after they’d done the Ghost Dance, and in time their Wounded Knee became our Kent State, but that lay in the future.

What was of greatest importance that summer of all those years ago was the news that Bob Dylan – The Bob Dylan – The man who’d almost died in a motorcycle accident and had been in seclusion for what felt like an eternity because of the hideous disfigurement, and/or, brain damage he’d sustained in the crash, was coming to this country to play the Isle of Wight. It was virtually unbelievable. After the reception he’d got in 1966 it seemed unimaginable that he’d ever want return to this Sceptic Isle where those few short years ago he’d played the lead role in a production staged by the Theatre of the Insane – Who on Earth would want a repeat of those Spring nights of madness, when electricity howled and fools shrieked, when night after night Dylan confronted his daemons head on devoured them by sheer force of Will? Times change of course, hadn’t he told us that, and the gainsayers and naysayers of such a short time ago were now avid champions of the new muse. Judas had converted and become born again into the fold, shyly telling us that it wasn’t until they’d heard Blonde On Blonde that they’d realised where Dylan was coming from.

By the summer I was part of a loose knit commune of artistically inclined Heads. I played in a band and helped out on producing Manchester’s very own ‘Underground Newspaper’, Grass Eye, and when word got out that Dylan was coming to play at the Isle of Wight, we went into overdrive to produce a special commemorative summer issue. Looking back on it now, it was probably the first bit of serious writing that I’d ever bothered to do properly, and I find it weird/odd/strange/comforting, to notice that it was about Dylan. Everything goes full circle, I guess. Nowadays, of course, it would not only be seen as unfashionable, but also insane to regard Dylan as the Messiah, but there’s no denying that back then we hung on every word (or would have done if he’d said any) of the man who told us not ‘to follow leaders’. A ludicrous situation to be sure, but common enough for the time when deeply significant meanings were read into album covers, song lyrics and even the clothing of contemporary artists who seemed to ‘have a message’. Also bear in mind that most of us had a bucket full of lysergic acid swimming through our systems as well – a situation that now, with a great deal of hindsight, I can categorically state didn’t go hand-in-hand with logical thinking.

The piece I wrote for Grass Eye, however, wasn’t concerned with the imminent second coming that, in a sense, we regarded the Isle of Wight appearance as being. Rather it looked back at Dylan’s transition to electric troubadour, in particular at Another Side of Bob Dylan as signifier of the sea change in not only his thinking, but his method of performing. I recall claiming that it was an album crying out for a backing band. Anyway, the article was written and then we set about cannibalising a few album covers to ‘create’ the montage for issue number seven of Manchester’s answer to International Times.

Our normal print run was around seven thousand copies and we’d realistically expect to sell five thousand, not bad for an underground paper at the time. Oz, which was distributed nationally shifted about 25,000 per issue, so we did quite well in spreading our mixture of Love and Revolution. At a meeting of the collective it was decided to go out on a limb and print 15,000 copies and take them down to the Isle of Wight and sell them there. Just to reinforce how stupid and naïve we were I now have to point out that we had no tickets, no transport and virtually no money.

No problem. We figured that all we had to do was get there and walk up to the promoters, show them a copy of the paper and we’d be given a press pass – ergo, lack of tickets solved. Transport was the next major headache. One of the guys was a car thief, so that took care of that, except that 15,000 copies of the paper took up a lot of room so he was ok, and one other could go in the front with him. Being a) clever, or b) paranoid about being busted before I even got there, I opted to hitch however many hundreds of miles it was. I didn’t really have a clue where the Isle of Wight was either. I knew it was south of London and that it was an island therefore at some point I’d have to get on a boat, but what the heck, it couldn’t be that difficult could it?

So on Thursday the 28th August I merrily set out from Manchester with a bedroll and two mates – so began my nightmare journey into Hell. Actually, I don’t think it was that bad given the fact that in 1969 there were very few motorways. It might have helped if I’d had a map or even better, an idea of where I was going, but around nine that evening we’d got as far as London. The problem was that we weren’t moving fast enough. We’d arranged to rendezvous with the others at mid-day at the festival site and at this rate there was no way we were going to make it on time. A quick check of our financial resources revealed just enough loose change to get on board one of the many shuttle trains that were running down to the coast, and so we set off into the night. Man, it was a slow train. British Rail had spared no expense in not spending any expense and it was a very tired me and a few hundred other freaks who were herded onto the oldest, filthiest carriages I’d ever seen in my life. I remember being so thirsty that I drank from the ‘This is not drinking water’ tap in the carriage’s toilet, and then staggering back to the wooden benches (yes, wooden) that had been laid on for us, convinced that I’d probably poisoned myself and there was going to be one less fan worshipping at the feet of the master that weekend.

I kind of dozed in a fitful way as we rattled through the countryside, and when dawn broke we’d arrived in Southampton and by some strange quirk of fate found ourselves being ushered on board a ferry. I can only surmise that we’d got ourselves onto a ‘boat train’ as I think they were/are called. So without much further a-do we were more at sea than we usually were. In the Observer the following Sunday, a journalist recalled seeing dozens of ‘Dylans’ at the Isle of Wight, and he was right. There must have been at least twenty on the ferry. I know this for certain because I was one of them. I was a kind of mid-sixties Bob because I had the hair for it, if not quite the correct clothing. There were a couple of John Wesley Hardings and even more Freewheelers complete with caps, suede jackets and blonde girlfriends. It was turning into quite a gathering of the clones. I also discovered on board the good ship whatever, a few other Mancunian hippies and what’s more, they had food! We all decided to stick together and see what we would see.

After several lusty choruses of ‘We’ve got a ticket to Ryde’, we finally docked and disgorged onto the island. Hordes of people shuffled round looking at maps and signs. I got the feeling that the islanders were just being helpful enough in order to get us out of their town as fast as possible. There were buses and coaches waiting to carry people to the festival site, but needless to say we didn’t have enough bread for anything as luxurious as that and set off on foot in a long snaking column that seemed to stretch forever. I kept being reminded of a Henry Treece novel I’d read a couple of years earlier about the ill-fated Children’s Crusade of the middle ages. Thousands of kids from around Europe had set off to free the Holy land from the heathens and got as far as Marseilles where jovial entrepreneurs had helped them onto boats that they said would carry them to Acre and the main Crusader army. Instead they took them off along the Barbary Coast and sold them into slavery. By the time we reached the site the illusion was almost complete.

A rag tag army of freaks was camped out in disorganised rows under an assortment of coverings. A pall of smoke enveloped everything. There were even flags fluttering lightly in the mild breeze, looking just like the banners of a medieval army. Long haired figures wrapped in blankets gazed up from cooking pots and campfires as we searched for the festival office. Finally we got to a lone caravan with the words ‘Festival Press Office’ written on the side. This was our destination. This was our goal. Unfortunately so it was for several hundred other people. Some were freaks like us. Others were in suits. Most of them looked like professional journalists. We didn’t.

But we were confident. This was where it would all come together. Who knows – We might even get an interview with Bob? I looked for the orderly queue. There wasn’t one, just a giant scrum of desperate looking people waving press cards, cameras and bits of official looking paper. I held up issue seven of Grass Eye and flapped it vainly in the direction of the caravan. I was about a hundred feet away.

After about an hour of flapping my only credentials I realised there was no way I was going to get a pass. My joy at having got there dissipated and I wandered off back towards the encampment that lay on the outside of the arena. Man, it was a grade ‘A’ bummer. Eventually I decided that the next best thing was to try and meet up with Chris and Steve. They were the ones who’d come down in a car of dubious parentage, laden with copies of the paper. The only slight problem in meeting up with them was the fact that we’d had no idea when we all set off of what anything was going to be like when we got there. Now I was on my own in a rapidly growing crowd of around a hundred thousand people. I had no money, no food, no water and no fucking idea.

So I walked aimlessly about in search. First of all I came across a Digger tent. The Diggers were the philanthropic brigade of the Hippies. They believed in ‘free everything’ and gave away all they could hustle from ‘alternative’ shops and the like. At the Isle of Wight they were giving away free food. So, after a meal of brown rice and aduki bean burgers I wandered on my merry way listening to the music that was coming over the fence, because by now the festival had begun.

In what seemed like no time at all and by complete and total chance, out of the quarter a million people there I came across Steve and Chris. Turned out they hadn’t had to steal a car after all, Chris’s brother had lent him his, and there it was parked up and full of papers. We grabbed an armful each and set off for the entrance gates. Within an hour I’d sold enough to ensure I had enough cash to last me the weekend. By the end of the festival we’d sold out of the 15,000 print run. I have a sneaking suspicion that people might have thought they were official programmes or something, but like as not they just figured it was an underground newspaper. The most important thing was, it had Dylan on the cover.

The amazing run of good luck and good vibes carried on and so the ticket problem was solved when we met up with some people from International Times. They knew us and we knew them and they’d been allocated a stall inside the arena where all sorts of underground ‘things’, incense, beads, Rizlas, etc were on sale. They were allowed to drive their van into the site without it being inspected. We all piled inside, went through the gate and from then on we stayed inside the arena for the whole weekend.

I have to say that my recollections of the weekend are a tad hazy. It was fun, it was different. It was in fact the very first festival I ever attended. But mainly it all falls into a blur. Hardly surprising considering how many narcotics were taken. I do, however, remember Dylan – just. By Sunday the novelty of sitting in a field was beginning to wear off. That plus the fact that the only reason I was there was to see Bob Dylan. I’d been at the Free Trade Hall in 1966 and couldn’t wait to see him again. Well, wait we did. And then some. The music had begun around mid-day and a stream of performers had trooped on and trooped off. On the whole they were pretty good. Again, my recollections of the day’s acts are all rather hazy. All I can recall with any clarity is wondering when the Hell Dylan was going to come on. It might have been August, but lack of proper food and lack of sleep made it all seem a lot chillier than it probably was. When darkness closed in and there was still no sign of Dylan, an outbreak of booing and slow hand clapping started out among sections of the crowd. I remember thinking, “Oh Christ! Don’t boo him now or he’ll never come on!”

Years later American journalist and friend of Bob Dylan, Al Aronowitz, wrote a great memoir for Isis, which went some way to explaining what was going on backstage. There was, it seemed, a problem with the sound system. The Band were supposed to go on at eight thirty. Aronowitz also obliquely inferred that Robbie Robertson was in no great hurry to have the sound system fixed because he wanted to upstage Dylan, to faze him, to make him uneasy about the show. Dylan told Al that he wanted to get onstage time and again, and each time Jon Taplan the Band’s road manager refused. Out in the crowd things were getting fractious. When the Band did finally come on at shortly after ten, it was dark, cold and none too inviting. They clawed back the atmosphere and set the scene for Dylan’s eventual appearance, and what an appearance it was. I was standing on top of a Bedford van armed with an old naval telescope I’d borrowed off somebody. The roar of the crowd is still one of the loudest things I’ve ever heard. Dylan’s set was an interesting eclectic mix of the old and the new – and then, suddenly – he was gone.

It must rank as one of the most anti-climactic events in the history of popular music. I’m not saying Dylan gave a bad performance, but it just ended so suddenly, so dramatically, that nobody I spoke to afterwards could ever believe it. Again, with hindsight, it all becomes clear and the blame lies with no one. It was, all in all, a good Dylan show, but even he was put off performing again by it. Listening to the recordings now and I feel that if I’d actually paid for a ticket I wouldn’t have felt ripped off. Some of the tunes are remarkably good, others are perhaps a little lacklustre, or maybe more accurately, don’t come off the way Dylan expected., but overall it’s a great set-list and in historical terms provides us with a missing link between 1966 and what would come in 1974.

For sheer excitement the Free Trade Hall beats the Isle of Wight hands down, and though I’m glad I was there, I certainly wouldn’t want to write a book about it. Nor would anyone want to read it.