I always thought he looked like he was about to topple over, the mid 60s Bob Dylan. With the stripy pipe cleaner-thin spindles he called legs carrying the weight of that fantastic dark blue suede military jacket, the Ray-Bans stuck high up that hooked nose and the wildly exploding crow’s nest ‘fro, not to mention the ideas constantly forming and reforming in that speed-addled super-brain of his, it’s amazing that the top-heavy troubadour never once fell flat on his face. On the contrary, mid 60s Bob was The Man, one step ahead of his manager and his band and his audience, barely giving consideration to anyone willing and able to catch up with him.
Dylan et al (DA Pennebaker in the top hat) at London Airport, May 6th 1966
By the time he’d hopped over from Dublin in May 1966 to commence his tour of the UK, Dylan was 4 drummers in with the previous three, including Band legend Levon Helm, jumping the good ship Bob in favour of a quieter life. Incessant nightly booing, it seemed, wasn’t what any of them had signed up for. Dylan arrived here a bona fide superstar, the voice of a new socially-conscious generation, every show sold out in advance. Aloof, arrogant and quotable in abundance, The Zim riled the stuffy British press. He didn’t play their expected game. His one press conference, at London’s Mayfair Hotel, was a testy affair. Music journalists were sat side by side with the more straight-laced journalists from London’s press establishment and so questions came from a bristling mix of the informed and the ignorant; What d’you like? What d’you loathe? There seems to be an electric element creeping into your sound…. What d’you think of England? Are you married? (Answer: I’d be a liar if I answered that, and I don’t lie.)
When the Melody Maker’s Max Jones suggested that he didn’t hear protest songs any longer, a weary Dylan shot back.
“All my songs are protest songs! You name something, I’ll protest about it! All I do is protest!”
Even Keith Altham, the most cutting-edge, most well-respected music writer of his time and the golden boy at the NME to boot, found himself on the wrong end of Dylan’s surreal wit. “Why is it,” he asked, “that the titles of your recent singles, like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ bear no apparent connections with the lyrics?”
‘It has every significance,’ returned Dylan. ‘Have you ever been down in North Mexico?’
Dylan batted everything off with an abstract absurdness that came easy to him. He treated the journalists like morons, prompting one to complain that “Cliff Richard was never like this,” firing back the funniest, most-perfect answers you might ever read.
Q: What do you own?
A: Oh, thirty Cadillacs, three yachts, an airport at San Diego, a railroad station in Miami. I was planning to bus all the Mormons.
Q: What are your medical problems?
A: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercury-esque eyes. And another thing—my toenails don’t fit.
With everything being captured for posterity by DA Pennebaker’s shoulder camera, Dylan and an unwitting press played their part well. It’s all there in the wired, messy travelogue Eat The Document if you didn’t know already. If only for the brief clip of Dylan and his band standing at the corner of George Square in Glasgow, tapping their toes to a passing pipe band right outside where the Counting House pub stands these days, seek it out.
It was this backdrop that informed the charged nature of the shows. Playing the same two sets each night, Dylan opened with a set of acoustic songs, just him, his guitar and a selection of harmonicas. They were generally very well-received, as rightly they should’ve been. Dylan was on top form, rolling out fantastic versions of some of his best-loved recent songs; She Belongs To Me with its slightly altered lyric, the eee-long-gat-ed phrasing in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, the lean, mean and near 12 minute Desolation Row, the definitive Mr Tambourine Man, its clearly enunciated words and perfect clarity sticking two fingers up the naysayers who’d sneer that Dylan couldn’t sing. It was the perfect set that would prove to be Dylan’s concession to the accepted notion of folk for the night.
After a short break he’d return, leading his band, a clobbering riot of Cuban heels and mohair suits and unkempt hair and electric guitars who’d plug in and play loud. Dylan too strapped on an electric, a Telecaster, wearing it over the shoulder the way a huntsman might take his gun out to shoot deer, a suitable metaphor given what would unfold. The second set always started with Tell Me, Momma, a gutterpunk garage band blooze that was the unholy sound of Pete Seeger and his axe and his high and mighty ways about folk music au-then-ti-ci-tee being blasted far and high over the Grand Coulee Dam. Never released as a studio version, the only official release comes via the Albert Hall 66 Official Bootleg – which was actually recorded in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester a week or so beforehand. But you knew that already.
Bob Dylan – Tell Me, Momma (Manchester, May 17th 1966)
The start of this recording, with the band clattering across the wooden stage to take position, the muffled and hushed, expectant audience, Dylan’s off-mike harmonica trills and the boot stomp count in that leads to the slap-in-the-face pistol crack snare never, ever fails to excite.
And then, when the band comes in…oh aye! They cook up a terrific howling storm; loud, raucous and in your face. Dylan looks his audience straight in the eye, takes aim and fires.
“But I know that you know that I know that you show, something’s tearing…up…your…mi-ii-ii-ind.”
If this fails to thrill you, if this fails to make you jump up and punch the air and shout, “Go Bob!” as loud as you can, then I can’t help you. No-one can. It’s his voice. He’s stoned or speeding or upping or downing or something, but Bob’s vocal is just great. Slurred yet enunciated, sloppy yet eager, he has you right there and then. Around him, out-with the eye of the storm, merry chaos ensues. A beat group?! At a folk concert?! With keyboards and electric bass and drums and everything?! Robbie Robertson, Dylan’s cooler than ice foil on the left fires of wildly sparking, cheesewire-thin electric riffs on his own arctic white Tele, played high up in the mix so as to cut through the chaotic racket. It’s incessant 12 bar blues played with fuck you punk spirit, the greatest sound around. And, at the end, applause. Real clapping and stuff. It wouldn’t last though. In Manchester, once the audience realises this set ain’t gonna be like the last one, the applause gives way to a slow handclap after only the second number, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).
Bob Dylan – I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Manchester, May 17 1966)
Previously cast as an acoustic blues on his Another Side Of… album, it’s reborn in ’66 as another beat-driven garage band rocker, heavy on the Hammond, always returning to its signature amped-up guitar riff. By the second song in, half his audience have chucked him for good. Those that stayed with him though had electric ideas of their own. Listen carefully to I Don’t Believe You and you’ll hear the genesis of The Faces’ Cindy Incidentally, a story for another time.
If this is your kinda thing, hunt out Jewels & Binoculars, a 26 CD bootleg of every parp ‘n fart from Bob’s harmonicas in 1966. It’s the gemme, as they say round these parts. Until then, here’s Bob and his band entertaining a confused Dublin audience. Wonderful stuff.