Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Artist as Apostate: Bob Dylan in 1966

The burning of Beatles records and magazines in the American South in 1966.

Back in 1966, John Lennon was worried about whether he'd be killed as The Beatles criss-crossed America in a summer filled with race riots and a heated controversy over a comment he made about the group being more popular than Jesus Christ. But there was another performer, one who was confused with being a prophet, having similar qualms that summer: Bob Dylan. Not only did the events in that season of hate alter the path of Dylan's career, it dramatically transformed the artist himself. He went from being a man making history to one who feared becoming its pawn. That summer determined not only his retreat from pop stardom, where a reluctant avatar suddenly saw the possibilities of betrayal, it also changed the game. With Dylan's Another Self Portrait, which contains unreleased sessions of music that make up two albums (Self PortraitNew Morning) during his retreat from his audience between 1969 and 1971, and on sale in stores today, you can hear in many of its songs the desire for solace. But the quiet in their sound, the soft beauty of "Pretty Saro," the contemplative quest in "Went to See the Gypsy," is deceptive. Another Self Portrait also has room for the tragic seduction of "House Carpenter," and the plaintive account of brutal murder in the traditional "Little Sadie." What all these songs have in common is that they portray a man seeking refuge in the more subtle confinements of the chamber room. But he couldn't hide from a world he helped create.

Just before The Beatles began confronting the many pitfalls of being idolized pop stars in 1965, folk troubadour Bob Dylan had decided to enter the pop arena himself. During the early part of the Sixties, Dylan had been an active member of the American folk revival, a dedicated musical movement that had aligned itself with the Civil Rights struggle, and were committed to carrying on the long, ennobled tradition of left-wing activism. The movement was led by such stalwart figures as Pete Seeger, Odetta, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Joan Baez and they had as their figurehead, the legendary Woody Guthrie. What Elvis had been to the birth of rock, Guthrie certainly was to the heart of the American folk movement. Within this revival was yet another quest for a renewed country and the music carried a righteous spirit to get them there. Unlike The Beatles' utopian ideals, though, their vision had an authentic set of values attached, and it wasn't located in a place in the mind. These believers looked out into America with an obligation to the dream of JFK's New Frontier. They demanded an America with justice for black and white, men and women. In their music, it was held that the values of the marketplace would never take precedence over the value of human life. They refused the urban hustle and bustle for what they saw as the honest simplicity of the rural communities. Unlike pop music, perceived by the folk community as an ugly symbol of capitalist corruption, their music set out to document the pure struggle of all peoples, not just one artist's petty self-interest. If you were to write a folk song, it wasn't going to be "I Wanna Be Your Man," but rather, "We Shall Overcome."

Into this sacred world, stepped an enigma named Bob Dylan. Dylan had abandoned his actual name of Robert Zimmerman, and he set out to become a folk-singing legend before the age of 25. By 1965, however, he abandoned the rustic look of the folk hero and donned a leather jacket. Dylan radically altered his repertoire as well by borrowing players from Paul Butterfield's Blues Band, picking up an electric guitar and plugging in. One night, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a loud and unhappy community expressed their displeasure when Dylan took a traditional folk song named "Penny's Farm," and turned it into the loud urban blues of "Maggie's Farm" (a song he had included that same year on his half-electric/half-acoustic Bringing it All Back Home). With this song, he declared his independence from a movement that had recently crowned him their young leader. "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more," he boldly cried out. It was quite clear from the power of his voice exactly whose farm he wasn't gonna work on. Just before Newport, Dylan stated his mission when he tore up the pop charts with an electrifying six-minute single called "Like a Rolling Stone." In it, he announced to his followers that, unlike their topical songs, his music was no longer going to usher in a better world. Dylan had made it clear to those who loudly booed him, and to anyone who cared to listen, that his music wasn't a product of history. His music was about to make history.

Bob Dylan at Newport Folk Festival, 1965
By 1966, as Dylan continued to embrace urban blues and rock 'n' roll on his stunning two-record set Blonde on Blonde, many in the folk community declared that Dylan had sold them out. In their eyes, he had embraced the Golden Calf, and became seduced by rock's vulgar paganism. He had abandoned the pastoral integrity of their indigenous music. In this perceived act of apostasy, Dylan's decision was duly affected by the pop storm created by The Beatles. Dylan claimed that he saw a line being drawn and that this British group had been no teeny-bopper fad. He saw a new possibility for himself in reaching a larger audience by providing a greater scope for his music. As he embraced the challenge The Beatles posed, Dylan abandoned the self-righteous dogmatism he saw inherent in the ambitious goals of the folk movement. He immediately made haste for the abstract language of dreams, surrealist tales, and comic allegories that were filled with real and wildly imagined personalities. When he launched his electric tour that spring of 1966, the concerts that followed were charged with a peculiar ambience, a prophecy of what was to come to pass by 1968, when assassinations, riots and an escalating war would tear America in half.

To face the angry swarm of betrayed folk fans, Dylan brought on board a Canadian rock group from Toronto called The Hawks. As the American crowds hissed, jeered and loudly booed, drummer Levon Helm (the only American in the group) decided to haul his tail back to Arkansas. Being a proud Southerner, Levon didn't play music to bear insults. After then securing drummer Mickey Jones, the group headed to England, the proud home of the Fab Four. But unlike the Fab Four, they weren't greeted with any "yeah, yeah, yeah's." The hostility, in fact, grew so intense that each concert became one more bloody battle in a long, protracted war. Dylan began each concert with a set of his acoustic music, but the lyrics were sometimes slowly drawn out, emphasizing the sound of his voice rather than the literal meaning of the lyric. When he came back from the intermission, however, with the crowd mostly calmed and expectant, he and The Hawks launched into some of the loudest, most powerful rock heard from a live stage. Their highly amplified music took no prisoners and it asked no favours. "It was a musically revolutionary time," remembers The Hawks' lead guitarist Robbie Robertson. "Who else can talk about playing all over North America, Europe and Australia and being booed every single night?"

Bob Dylan & The Hawks on tour in 1966
Before Dylan embarked on this tour, there were many who feared for his life. Folk singer Phil Ochs actually raised that concern a year earlier. "Dylan has become part of so many people's psyches – and there are so many screwed up people in America, and death is such a part of the American scene now," Ochs remarked. In 1965, when Ochs made that frank observation, death was just beginning to be part of the American scene. John Kennedy, Malcolm X and Medger Evers were already dead from assassin's bullets, but nobody had yet gunned down a pop star, let alone a celebrated folk artist. Ochs understood that Dylan was making himself a lightening rod for the rage of those beginning to feel dispossessed from the dreams of their country. These dispossessed were no longer just the alienated loners, like Lee Harvey Oswald, they could just as easily now be angry, forsaken idealists. When they countered Dylan, these pacifists, who had been dreaming of a new country based on egalitarian values, were now coming up against some dark primal emotions within themselves. Listening to their cascading jeers, Dylan certainly wasn't unaware of the fuss he was causing. He could feel the turbulent waves of resentment building with each show – and the audience definitely let him have it. Who was he kidding offering the frivolous "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" over "Blowin' in the Wind?" How dare he take those condescending shots at Mr. Jones in "Ballad of a Thin Man?" At the Manchester Free Trade Hall, on May 17, 1966, one frustrated individual decided to speak up. Keith Butler had been a mild-mannered Dylan fan from Toronto, attending school at Keele University in England. Although there would soon be a time, not too long in the future, when Butler would find himself having a relatively normal life, happily raising a family, and finding mainstream employment as a banker; on this particular evening, he impulsively stepped forward to change the course of Dylan's show. If Dylan could change history with his music, Butler thought, he could step into history and change it back.

Butler had actually enjoyed the acoustic half of the show like most of the folk purists. But when Dylan returned with The Hawks to play electric rock 'n' roll, Butler's mood changed as drastically as the crowd's. In particular, he was resentful about Dylan's radically altered versions of the once folk-flavoured "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" and "One Too Many Mornings." "I was disappointed, very emotional, and my anger just welled up when he did two songs I loved in that electric guitar way," he told Andy Gill of Mojo years later. With his rage boiling over, Butler stood up and uttered one simple word – and it had the impact of a cold hard-hitting bullet. At the moment Dylan finished "Ballad of a Thin Man," in the silent second that briefly cut into the endless clatter of displeasure heard in the hall, Butler stood up and yelled out to Dylan, "Judas!" After Butler made his remark, the shock waves rippled through the audience as if lightening had shorted out the amplifiers. Some in the crowd nervously cheered him, but Dylan was visibly stunned. In his 1963 "Masters of War," he had already identified the arms merchants as Judas Iscariot and he was once applauded for saying so. A year after, in "With God on Our Side," he asked listeners if Judas possibly had God on his side? Now on this evening, with nobody but The Hawks on his side, a fan in the audience had accused Dylan of being the ultimate betrayer. He quickly realized that this electric music, which he delivered with imagination, freedom and power, was more potent than he could have ever imagined. But he didn't know that it would bring forth a whole different set of consequences than the world-changing tunes of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." The only way for him to claim back the truth of this music was to come back hard. "I don't believe you," he told Butler curtly. The band then sought to regain their composure when Dylan called out, "You're a liar!" Turning back to Robbie Robertson, to break Butler's spell and gather the troops, Dylan refused to passively accept the role of the apostate. He calmly told the group, "Play fucking loud." With those words, Dylan unleashed a torrential version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Bob Dylan, in this 1966 performance, was telling his followers that they were now on their own with no direction home. Lines were clearly being drawn in the sand – and the sand was now shifting.

Dylan and his fans (photo by Barry Feinstein)
Putting aside for a moment the anti-Semitic intent of yelling "Judas!" at a Jew, the persona of Jesus was taking on a curious shape that year. After all, it was Lennon, mere months after Dylan's confrontation with Keith Butler, who became a target for saying that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Now Bob Dylan was being identified as Judas. Pop music, which was once basically a vehicle for immediate gratification, revealed a messianic spirit that was beginning to emerge. Within it, all of pop's participants could play out grander roles with higher stakes to win or lose. In particular, pop stars could believe they were delivering The Word (and even imagine themselves being crucified for doing so – as John Lennon did in "The Ballad of John and Yoko"). The pop audience could also play a crucial role in this sacrificial ritual. They could be like Roman soldiers hoisting their charlatan heroes on the cross, and hammering in the nails just to watch them die for our sins. Before the end of the Sixties, all of this religious masochism was being explicitly acted out in musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, rock operas like The Who's Tommy, and films like Privilege (1967). The listener, no longer content to be a mere consumer of music, now sought to be a protagonist in a larger story. Viewed in this particular context, Dylan didn't just perform a disappointing concert that Keith Butler happened to attend. For Butler, the show represented a larger drama with core values at stake. Butler stepped right into Dylan's music that night, making himself part of its very fabric, and demanded a change to the concert's outcome. If, for his audience, Dylan had once been a Jesus figure, Butler would take the role back by accusing Dylan of being a false prophet.

In 2002, when singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock re-enacted the entire Manchester Free Trade Hall show from 1966 at the Borderline Club in London, many in the audience sought to play Keith Butler during the evening performance. A few yelled "Judas!" – after the wrong song – either unable to remember Butler's place in the story, or perhaps wishing to alter its time line. Maybe they wanted to see if they could change the outcome of the show. But someone did eventually step into Butler's shoes at the correct moment before Hitchcock and his group, imagining themselves as Dylan & The Hawks, found their way into "Like a Rolling Stone." Although the spirit of the evening was all in good fun, with an absence of the possible danger lurking in 1966, Hitchcock's performance held up as a reminder of the shadow side hidden in the allure of utopian ideals. The Beatles' "There's a Place" once held out a hand that invited us to venture to another place, asking us to be an active partner in a dream rather than remaining a passive consumer. "I'll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours," Dylan once sang in "Talkin' World War III Blues." But what Dylan and The Beatles were to discover in 1966 was the risk of asking people to take part in your dreams. Once they do, maybe the dream is no longer yours to control.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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