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.

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.

Beyond its inevitable historical interest, what makes Live 1966 so special is that it captures a fantastic sound that neither Dylan nor anyone else was able to recapture. In fact, shortly before this tour, he and The Band had tried and failed to capture their live sound in the studio. Two and a half months after this show, Dylan had his famous motorcycle accident, followed by a period of withdrawal. He forever retreated from the psychic edge that Live 1966 documents.

While it wouldn't be true to say he was never this good again (in fact, less than a year later he was at the peak of his form on The Basement Tapes sessions), he was certainly never the same Dylan again. Live 1966 makes a pretty convincing case that after this epochal show, rock and roll was never quite the same again either.

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