Blowin' in the wind

The crowd that gathered on Halloween night in 1964 to hear Bob Dylan play New York City's Philharmonic Hall had no idea what storms lay ahead.


Charles Taylor
April 9, 2004 12:31AM (UTC)

"The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall" (Columbia Legacy)

"I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world." That line, from "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," one line from a song in which, said its composer, Bob Dylan, each line could stand as a separate song, describes what you hear on the newest release in Dylan's ongoing Bootleg Series.

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The wave is just a few months down the road from the Halloween night in 1964 when this concert was recorded at New York City's Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), but you can hear it starting to gather and swell beneath the surface. You hear it as faint rumbles that cause weird, unresolved patches in the public drama of adulation that this set is.

The liner notes, by historian Sean Wilentz, lay out the social and political context in which the concert took place: Nearly one year after JFK's assassination, a few months after the murder of civil-rights workers Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in Mississippi, days before Barry Goldwater's trouncing at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. In other words, it was a weird moment of disillusionment and hope, much of the latter, in the folk music community, pinned on Bob Dylan.

Dylan was, for the moment, still the darling of "protest music," and on these two discs he seems -- mostly -- content to play the part. He gives goofy, off-the-cuff intros to the songs, laughs at his own jokes -- at times he's like the hyperactive kid in "Spellbound." And the audience, which included a 13-year-old Wilentz, finds him adorable.

Wilentz reminds us that there were already signs of the lovers' split that lay just around the corner: A deeply condescending open letter in the folk bible "Sing Out!" from editor Irwin Silber had accused Dylan of giving in to "the American Success Machinery." Silber's gripe was prompted by Dylan's latest release, "Another Side of Bob Dylan," which eschewed the overt protest songs of the three albums that preceded it for ambiguous love songs, sketches for the surreal epics that would follow, and at least one song ("My Back Pages") that should have warned the folk community that the self-righteousness they valued was not for Dylan ("Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull").

The spectacularly ugly breakup would follow with the one-two punch of "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited," and the series of concerts that came after, where Dylan was booed and called everything from "sellout" to "Judas." That drama can be heard in all its terror and exhilaration on the 1966 Manchester, England, concert (finally officially released a few years ago as "The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert"). The audience sets up a steady clapping to throw Dylan and his band off tempo; they take advantage of the space between songs to yell abuse at the stage. Keyboardist Garth Hudson responds with an organ line for "Ballad of a Thin Man" in which you can hear the will to murder, and Dylan surpasses even that taunt with the closer, "Like a Rolling Stone."

Instructing his musicians, "Play fuckin' loud!" Dylan, somewhere along the middle of the performance, leaves the tune behind. His voice, impossibly loud and free, wails over the band, driving the song's "you're on your own now" lyrics to their target, savoring every bit of cruelty in his power to dwarf his critics. The audience came hoping for the biblical certainties of "Blowin' in the Wind" or "With God on Our Side." What they got was another biblical drama, one in which they were Jonah and Dylan was the whale.

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You can't help hearing that 1966 Manchester show as a shadow of the 1964 Philharmonic Hall show, with its polite, respectful silence, the only interruptions coming at the moments when the audience applauds its approval for a lyric. It's a riveting performance. You understand the thrill of righteousness that went through an audience when Dylan sang a good protest song like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" or even a false, shallow one like "With God on Our Side." You feel the thrill of belonging to a group that "gets it" when he does the joking "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" or "Talkin' World War III Blues."

The former, which he was prevented from singing on the "Ed Sullivan Show," is a wildly funny song about a man who joins the John Birch Society and starts looking for communists in his toilet bowl and behind the television set. When he gets an electric zap he concludes, "Them Reds done it/ The ones on 'Hootenanny'," referring to the ABC folk-music show that had refused to book Pete Seeger. The audience laughs at the compromises wrought on their beloved folk art by "the American Success Machinery." Sitting in New York City, listening to an authentic folk hero, they're not going to be taken in by the likes of "Hootenanny."

All of this is to say that listening to this concert is like watching a happy marriage that you know, for the sake of one partner, has to end. It would be easy, from the comfort of 40 years' hindsight, to belittle the political and social idealism of the young folk-music community -- especially when we know what that audience couldn't have known in 1964, how brief that moment of idealism was to be. But political and social idealism doesn't guarantee good art. At worst, it produces preachy art, stripped of moral ambiguity or nuance, in which performer and audience play their assigned roles.

What you hear in this young, idealistic audience, bursting with energy and social concern and good intentions, sometimes seems like a newer version of the mind-set Allen Ginsberg parodied eight years earlier in his poem "America" with the line, "I'm sentimental about the Wobblies." Over the course of his first three albums, Dylan managed to satisfy the folk-music community while shinnying out of their narrowest traps. I don't think it's wishful thinking to believe that "The Times They Are A-Changin'" provides no more assurance to the people who adopted it as an anthem than it does to the people perceived as its targets. And certainly liberal self-satisfaction was part of what Dylan was describing in the disgust he put into the lines "Take the rag away from your face/ Now ain't the time for your tears" in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

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But there was no way for as mercurial an artist as Dylan not to feel strangled by the folk community if he didn't want to remain static. How do you serve an audience that wants to deny genius? For all the adoration that you hear all over "Concert at Philharmonic Hall," you can also hear the expected obedience that is the price of that adoration. Those boos in Manchester in 1966 are the payment due on the cheers here.

This was a deeply reactionary audience. It could incorporate "Goodnight Irene" but not "Like a Rolling Stone." It couldn't even incorporate different versions of the same song. "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" appears in both the '64 and '66 concerts. The earlier, acoustic version is, as Dylan does it in Philharmonic Hall, the kind of song you could imagine Buddy Holly singing if he had been a folkie. It's a young man's song, a touchingly callow (though not callous) declaration of heartache.

In 1966 the song has a false beginning, a few notes blown on harmonica that Dylan interrupts, taunting the audience with "This is called 'I Don't Believe You.' It used to be like that, and now it goes like this," before launching into the new electric version. All the little-boy feints are gone from Dylan's performance and his affect. He's moving into the bitterness that is the flip side of his earlier tenderness. What's left behind the heartache is raw bewilderment, sexual jealousy and a taste for the vindictive.

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That sense of the personal -- which Irwin Silber had explicitly criticized Dylan for in "Sing Out!" -- holds no place in the folk audience's dreams of community. You imagine something like the horrified vision that Michael Pitt speaks of in "The Dreamers," the future as a movie directed by Mao where everyone in the cast of millions is an extra and they're all chanting the same slogans, as approximating the folk audience's fantasies of utopia. The folk music community's reaction to what it perceived as the conformity of mass culture was its own kind of conformity.

Dylan gets a big laugh in "Talkin' World War III Blues" when he refers to Martha and the Vandellas singing "Leader of the Pack." It doesn't matter that the Shangri-Las sang "Leader of the Pack"; for folkies the mass-produced sameness of rock 'n' roll was the point. You can imagine the young folk audience thinking that only "kids" listen to Martha and the Vandellas. That the Negroes they wanted to help overcome were also listening to Martha and the Vandellas perhaps didn't occur to young white folkies. Surely, the fantasy must have gone, oppressed peoples were purer than that.

And if there's any doubt about what this audience's notions of purity sounded like, we get four numbers (three duets, one solo) featuring the horror that is Joan Baez. How did anyone ever take that vanilla trill of hers seriously? (And has anyone ever heard the National Lampoon parody of Baez without hearing it every time they have heard her since?) She joins Dylan for "Mama, You've Been on My Mind" (screwing up the harmonies by changing the first word to "Daddy" on the chorus) and you couldn't imagine less sex appeal if Dylan were duetting with the Singing Nun. As much as anything here, Baez explains why Dylan had to get away from this audience.

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It's a testament to Dylan that he can be the object of this love fest without sounding untrue to himself. It's not just the fire he brings to the "protest" numbers -- "Hattie Carroll," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," etc. -- but the humor to "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and "Talkin' World War III Blues." The classic American tall-tale delivery Dylan employs on these numbers goes a long way toward mitigating the potential self-satisfaction they could inspire.

And while Dylan seems at home with the folk audience, he doesn't forsake individuality. It's fascinating to hear songs that, for this night at least, can be passed off as folk songs. There is a current of eroticism in "Spanish Harlem Incident" that brings the performance a hint of danger, a flash of street glamour. And Dylan's charm is such that he can seem sweet on "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," as sneaky and funny a seduction song as anybody ever recorded, putting the onus as it does on female false modesty instead of male horniness -- a balance Sandy Denny would reverse when, with Fairport Convention, she covered the song in French. (What a great concept 45 Dylan's original would have made if it were the B-side to "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?")

Where then does that gathering wave make itself felt? It's in the songs that were new to the audience: "Gates of Eden," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." The final song is so beautiful, so close to a psychedelic lullaby that you can only imagine audiences being dazzled by it, as this audience seems to be. But the attentive silence that greets the performances on this CD takes on a strained air during "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright Ma." Possibly that's the collected tension of an audience concentrating on such long, difficult songs.

But what I hear during those numbers feels more like the audience asking, "What the hell is this?" There is no fixed narrative to the songs and, what must have been more alarming, no fixed targets, no easy "lies that life is black and white." At one moment, there is a flash of the defiance that Dylan would no longer be hiding two years down the road. He introduces one of the new songs as "It's Alright Ma, It's Life and Life Only." This produces giggles from some segments of the audience to which Dylan replies, "Yes, it's a very funny song." He follows that remark with the silly laugh that follows almost all his remarks here. But there's nothing ingratiating about the performance that follows with its unmediated tone of darkness and dread that isn't lessened by Dylan's hesitancy.

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The song is still fairly new and so word-packed that Dylan picks his way through it carefully as if he doesn't yet trust himself to remember all the lyrics. You can feel him slowing down on some lines, even forgetting one (followed by the predictable goofy laugh). None of this dilutes the measured but relentless drive of the performance, the sense, surely not a comfortable one for the audience, that if Dylan is protesting anything here, he is protesting life itself. And what sort of slogan do you come up with for that fight?

If I've made "Concert at Philharmonic Hall" sound like a relic, then I've slighted the performance, which evokes its moment without being trapped by it. And the folk community has to be credited for providing the buoyancy that animates Dylan's performance. But there's too much humor, sexiness, mischief, thrust, verbal play in Dylan to make "Concert at Philharmonic Hall" fit in with the naive earnestness that defined much folk of the era. When you see Peter, Paul and Mary reunions being endlessly flogged on PBS affiliates at pledge time, you think that this is where they were always destined to be. It's protest music as comfort food, serving no purpose as much as to reassure listeners of their own rightness.

Despite the break with the folk audience that looms all over this CD, what I hear now is how Dylan kept the promises that matter. If, as he said, every line in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" could stand on its own as a separate song, here those lines sound like sketches for the songs that followed, songs that deepened the mystery of each line instead of explaining it away.

The truest line of all might be, "I'll know my song well before I start singing." He knew his song better than his adoring audience did. Even at this moment of amity, they were being outstripped, already, to quote a Dylan song from earlier in that year, a thousand miles behind.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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