Forever young

Belated release of Bob Dylan's legendary Live 1966 brings it all back home

In the booklet for his 1985 career anthology, Biograph, Bob Dylan mused on the differences between his rapturously received 1974 "comeback" tour and the contentious series of shows he had given eight years earlier. On the surface, much was similar about these two tours: In both cases, Dylan was backed by The Band. In both cases, he mixed a solo acoustic set with a full-bore electric one. Even the song selection--drawing heavily on the period from Bringing It All Back Home to Blonde On Blonde--was remarkably similar. But Dylan knew that something had changed in 1974.

"What [the audiences] saw you could compare to early Elvis and later Elvis, really," he noted. "Because it wasn't quite the same, when we needed that acceptance it wasn't there. What they saw wasn't really what they would have seen in '66 or '65. If they had seen that, that was much more demanding...People didn't know what it was at that point. When people don't know what something is, they don't understand it and they start to get, you know, weird and defensive. Nothing is predictable, and you're always out on the edge. Anything can happen."

His Biograph diatribe aside, Dylan has never made too big a deal out of the booing and heckling his electrified sound met from folk purists in 1965 and '66 (by comparison, he's shown much more bitterness about the abuse he took from old fans during his born-again Christian shows of 1979 and '80). Perhaps he feels that time has so clearly proven him right, there's no point in restating the obvious. But it also may have something to do with the fact that Dylan simply doesn't enjoy revisiting his past. Although he willingly plays his old classics onstage, unlike most of his contemporaries, he's practically never revived a song that was left over from a previous album's recording sessions. It didn't matter if the track was something as monumentally brilliant as 1983's "Blind Willie McTell." Once Dylan was off to the next album, he generally wiped the slate clean.

Such scorched-earth behavior helps to explain two inescapable facts about Dylan's career: that he is the most bootlegged artist of all time, and that even after such bootlegs become obscenely popular, he remains reluctant to release them properly. He didn't sanction the (truncated) release of 1967's legendary The Basement Tapes with The Band until 1975, not so coincidentally a few months after he had reasserted his creative mastery with the Blood On the Tracks album.

Perhaps even more beloved than The Basement Tapes is a May 1966 concert recording with The Band (then known as The Hawks), which has long been called the "Royal Albert Hall" show, but was in fact recorded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester a week earlier. About three years ago, Dylan finally gave the green light to this project. The mastering and packaging were prepared, when Dylan inexplicably pulled the plug on it. A year and a half ago, rock critic and longtime Dylan watcher Greil Marcus theorized that only after Dylan made a real cultural impact with a new album--as he had with Blood On the Tracks--might he loosen up enough to allow this prized bootleg to be issued.

Well, sure enough, Dylan has since released Time Out of Mind, a solid-selling Grammy winner that's brought him more acclaim than anything he's done in two decades, and hot on its heels--a mere 32 years after it was recorded--Columbia/Legacy has now released the Manchester concert under the unwieldy title The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966--The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert.

The set's release is already re-opening the floodgates of fascination with this period of Dylan's career. Currently, Eat The Document, the documentary of the 1966 tour shot by D.A. Pennebaker (but edited by Dylan himself) is showing at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles. The New York premiere on October 5 was preceded by a seminar called "Ferocious Electricity," featuring Marcus, Pennebaker, and New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum.

What comes through with enhanced clarity and power on Live 1966 is that Dylan was pushing the frontiers of live performance far beyond what his chief competition, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, had even contemplated. At this stage, while Dylan was hammering out a 45-minute acoustic set and another 45 minutes of all-out rock every night, the Beatles were sailing through apathetic 25-minute shows for screaming teenyboppers. They were trapped in a time warp, forced to play "Rock and Roll Music" onstage while in the studio they were wigging out with such tape-loop extravaganzas as "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Dylan, on the other hand, was braving the full depths of his stream of consciousness onstage. To hear him tear into something like the Tex-Mex border lament "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," with those wild vocal swoops that have been much parodied over the years, is to be convinced that his studio recordings of this period offered mere rough drafts for his live performances. For perhaps the last time in his career, on this tour Dylan was still in the process of creating his myth, and not merely imprisoned by it. As he himself put it, on this recording you feel that nothing is predictable, and that anything can happen.

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