A personal view

by Jim LaClair


As I finally settle in to write this, my first contribution to Freewheelin-on-line, Bob Dylan is - at this very moment - on a stage at Newport, Rhode Island after a 37 year hiatus performing in the Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park. Tomorrow, God willing, my wife and I will travel to Augusta, Maine to begin our own mini Bob Odyssey, three concerts in five days. In my wildest dreams could I have imagined on a long ago night late in October of 1965, that after all this time, I would still be "on the road, heading for another joint" to see the then angry young crown prince of rock 'n' roll doing his thing? A considerable amount of attention has been given to that 30 October 1965 performance at the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut, since a previously-unheard-of recording of the show (some of the show, that is) surfaced this spring. I could hardly believe the posting when it first appeared on my daily visit to the Expecting Rain web site, but within an hour of my sending an e-mail to a gentleman in Virginia, a trade was arranged, and the disc was on its way to me.

Before I proceed any further, I must emphasize that to a certain extent, this will be a composite recollection. The reason for this disclaimer is that I saw and heard virtually the same concert one week earlier in Burlington, Vermont, and for both shows I had the extraordinary advantage of front row seats. The resemblance ends here, however. The Burlington show of 23 October was held in a college gym before an audience which was to a great extent composed of university students, most of whom were quite close to Dylan in age. The Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford is a stately music hall which resonates with the ambiance of a temple for the arts. The gathering at Hartford represented a greater cross section of Dylan's fan base at the time. Bohemian types mingled uneasily with educators and insurance executives, all of us anticipating a cultural happening of extraordinary importance.

Insofar as my recollection of that long ago night in Hartford is concerned, my first impression of the evening comes in the form of a rhetorical question: how could anyone have been surprised that Bob would be plugged in for part of the show? The amplifiers and the drum kit were there in plain sight at the back edge of the stage; obviously there would be musicians here to play them. Ample coverage of concerts at Carnegie Hall and several other venues had established the "electric set" as part of the show. "Like A Rolling Stone" was receiving constant airplay on American radio; Would Dylan or any other artist worth his salt perform without delivering his big hit? To me these questions were no-brainers, especially in light of the fact that I had been in the crowd three months earlier when Bob supposedly shocked the folk establishment with his historic appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. Yet even before Bob walked on stage, I was aware of a dynamic tension in the building. While there had been scattered catcalls in Burlington a week earlier, the general mood both before and during that concert had been one of celebration...Bob Dylan here in OUR little town??!! At Hartford one could definitely sense a confrontational atmosphere.

I once read that the most riveting moment in the entire realm of the performing arts occurs when Bob Dylan walks onto a stage. Certainly this was never more evident than during these turbulent performances of 1965 and '66! When the houselights went down and Bob emerged from the darkness into the spotlight at center stage, he seemed to emit an aura that was almost otherworldly. In the lights he was as pale as a ghost; I'm not sure why, but I often think of Hamlet about to deliver his soliloquy when I think of Dylanon this night. "To be or not to be" indeed! To be true to all that his incredible gifts promised/demanded or to perish from suffocation imposed by those critics who considered his art to be their property. Standing in the light just a few feet from my seat, he seemed so fragile, like a porcelain doll. "She Belongs to Me" was the opener, a song I have always loved. While the original recording was and is wonderful, Dylan's performance seems somewhat detached when it is compared to his rendition on this night. I remember noticing that the "Egyptian ring" had become an "Egyptian red ring" and this little detail delighted me.

The song I most wanted to hear was "Desolation Row" and sure enough, here it came in the fifth slot. My greatest disappointment with the newly discovered recording is that the taper chose to omit this song. I can tell you that it was magnificent, highlighted by two killer harmonica solos. In his article in Freewheelin-on-line take two, C.P. Lee has already provided an excellent overview of the recording. It is therefore not my intention to render a song by song critique of the concert, especially in light of the many gaps on the recording. With no irreverence intended, however, I would compare Dylan's acoustic set that evening to a religious liturgy. Something almost sacred seemed to be in the air, and the music transcended anything that the popular culture could define or contain. It was spellbinding and we were in awe. As Dylan left the stage with his only spoken words of the set ("I'll Be back in about ten minutes"), it was clear that those within the "folk music" faction were prepared to claim victory in this undeclared war.

When he returned after the intermission, Dylan was, of course, not alone. He was accompanied by the five musicians identified in the pre-concert announcements as Levon and the Hawks. The word that works best for me in describing what followed is explosive. My experience with rock music at that time had been completely confined to recordings. "Tombstone Blues" - the impact of this onslaught of amplified sound was mind boggling. I especially remember the incredible energy of Rick Danko whose bass seemed to pulsate and vibrate through my body. Dylan, who had seemed so delicate and vulnerable during the acoustic set, had become a crazed marionette, continuously turning to Robbie and challenging him as if their lives were hanging in the balance. The recordings that have surfaced over the years are magnificent, but they can never adequately convey the ferocity of these frenzied duels between Robbie and Dylan.

For the electric set, my most vivid memory is of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" - again, sadly, omitted from the recording. In Burlington, Dylan had introduced the song with the "Tom Thumb's a cat who lives down in Mexico..." routine which we have preserved on the Melbourne, Australia disc, but my recollection is that on this night he launched into it with no preliminaries, the Hawks carrying the music to another dimension and Bob stretching the syllables beyond the breaking point. I remember how pleased I was when a live rendition of this song surfaced as the "B" side of the "I Want You" single released the following year.

The grand finale, severely truncated in the recording, was "Like A Rolling Stone," clearly a work still in progress at the time. While the elongated phrasing and extended instrumental solos of 1966 are less in evidence in this performance, Dylan and the Hawks still delivered the song with an intensity hardly suggested by the studio recording. Through the whole electric set, the stoic expression on Dylan's face rarely changed, but the Hawks, especially Robertson and Danko, often laughed in the euphoria of the moment, as if they realized they were engaged in some cosmic joke.

In his article, C.P. Lee refers to the fact that there is little evidence of animosity from the audience on the recording. This is true, but we must remember that the disc we have represents only a fragment a suggestion of what occurred on this historic evening. While I cannot recall all of the specifics, I can assure the reader that the lone cry of "Folk music!" which is audible on the recording was far from the only expression of frustration that I heard that night. There were several other outbursts; I clearly remember someone shouting, "Go back to England with the Beatles!" or something to that effect, and I also recall overhearing a conversation on my way out of the hall in which the speakers were discussing how many people had walked out during the electric set. Although this may be true, I was unaware of it at the time. On the contrary, as the recording clearly demonstrates, several of the songs were greeted with approval. This is quite evident in the enthusiastic response to the first bars of "Positively Fourth Street" which the taper recorded in its entirety. I have always believed that if a victory could be claimed that night, it was Dylan who claimed it. He certainly had the majority of the crowd in his corner. Those who chose to protest his new musical direction have their own place in Dylan lore; perhaps this was all they ever intended to accomplish.

This unique document probably raises as many questions as it answers. Whatever the case may be, we should be grateful for this new link in the extraordinary chain of events that began at Newport in July of 1965 and ended at London's Royal Albert Hall in May of 1966.


Hartford 1965