Forever young

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

What did happen that night was the stuff of rock legend. After a well-received seven-song, 45-minute acoustic set, Dylan came out with The Band, plugged in his electric guitar, and all hell broke loose. Thankfully, Live 1966, unlike its famous bootleg, also offers Dylan's solo acoustic set for a full sense of context. (Though more recent bootlegs have included the acoustic set.) Unlike his British shows of the year before--documented in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back film--Dylan is hardly going through the motions here. In fact, he reserves many of his most deeply introspective songs for this acoustic set, delivering a ghostly "Visions of Johanna" and possibly his most compassionate version of what was then a still-unreleased "Just Like a Woman."

But, fine as the acoustic performance is, the real action starts in the electric set. The vaguely uncomfortable sense of decorum that dominated the first set explodes in the face of Dylan and The Band's astonishingly loud, raucous attack. Dylan's voice, so subdued in the first set, literally sounds as if it's been jolted by the same current of electricity running through his guitar's pickups.

At first, you sense the crowd is too stunned to react. Dylan and The Band kick into a shambling rockabilly throwaway called "Tell Me, Momma" (sort of a cross between "From A Buick 6" and "Odds and Ends"), with Dylan preemptively mocking the malcontents in the crowd for their purist rigidity: "Tell me, momma / What's wrong with you this time?"

In fact, what surely must have bothered the angry contingent who wanted the "old Dylan" was not simply that he was playing an electric guitar. After all, by this point, even the most dedicated folkies were exploring the possibilities of electric accompaniment. It was the sense that he was laughing at them, ridiculing their belief system. It's what Joan Baez referred to with some irritation in later years when she called the Dylan of this period the "Dada King."

In Manchester, the Dada King actually got a laugh out of the crowd when he introduced his second electric song, "I Don't Believe You" ("It used to be like that, and now it goes like this"). Compared with the live version from the same tour issued on Biograph (recorded from a mono live feed from the film crew), this "I Don't Believe You" is infinitely more powerful, with Rick Danko's pumping bass much more audible, and Robbie Robertson's snaky R&B licks taking center stage. Even Dylan's seemingly random harmonica wheezes--which all but massacre the Biograph version--are tolerable here.

It isn't until the intro to the third electric song, a gracefully revamped "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," that the uneasiness starts to feel palpable. Dylan's adherents and detractors literally start shouting at each other, and crowd sentiment tends to swing in whatever direction the cleverest retort comes from. The hecklers also start a kind of sarcastic slow clapping, aimed at distracting Dylan and The Band.

For most of the set, Dylan maintains a dignified silence in the face of this hostility. When the derisive clapping becomes too loud to overlook after a rock-hard rendition of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," Dylan begins mumbling gibberish into the mike. It was probably funny at the time, but all these years later, it's positively hysterical to hear a youthful Dylan briefly sound so much like the incoherent mumbler he became two decades later. As the crowd quiets to hear him, Dylan, with absolutely impeccable timing, ends his mumbling by saying, "If you just wouldn't clap so haaaard." The audience bursts into applause, taking his side for the moment.

By the time Dylan kisses off his old fans with a frighteningly sneering "Ballad of a Thin Man"--abetted mightily by Garth Hudson's sinister organ runs--the detractors have had enough. Shortly after the end of the song, a voice in the crowd shouts the most famous of all rock-and-roll heckles: "Judas!"

Dylan waits for a few seconds, before shouting back, "I don't believe you." He continues strumming his guitar, and as The Band tentatively starts to join in, he raises his voice to its angriest pitch: "You're a liar!" Off mike, he turns to the band and can be heard saying, "Play fuckin' loud."

The song they kick into, "Like A Rolling Stone," may be the closest thing Dylan has to a definitive tune, and over the years we've all heard him play it enough times to be thoroughly tired of it. But the Live 1966 version of "Like A Rolling Stone" is unlike anything we've heard before. The song is slowed down, with a heavier beat than its recorded version (thanks to the fabulous drumming of Levon Helm's temporary replacement, Mickey Jones), and there's more than a little blood on these tracks. This anthem, which Dylan himself has called an expression of revenge, has never sounded this furious in any of his subsequent performances. His voice is so emotionally charged, it literally sounds as though the music is lifting him off his feet.

After seven relentless minutes, the song comes to a crashing end, with Robertson peeling off a series of harsh, metallic riffs. The crowd, overpowered by something undeniably majestic, finally offers its unqualified, but strangely brief, applause. One senses that all the air has gone out of the heckler's balloon.

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