Dylan and Newport
Baby Steps for Dylan, a Giant Leap for Western Civilization
A new Dylan DVD was just released: The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965. There are no hidden tracks, interviews with people who were there, no explaining, no narration, just the footage as it happened. Hallelujah! It’s a tribute the prudence of director Murray Lerner.
1963 Newport: Clean Cut American Folk Hero
Dylan sat in a small wooden folding chair as he began “North Country Blues.” He looked so young; there wasn’t a liquour store in Rhode Island that wouldn’t have proofed him if he tried to purchase a bottle of whiskey. The legendary Clarence Ashley was sitting on the stage smoking a fag and clutching a banjo in his other hand. Ashley, a character from “That Weird Old America,” had so much stage presence that he seemed to upstage young Bob just by sitting there. Joan Baez sounded awful harmonizing with Dylan during “With God on Our Side.” I’m fond of Joan’s voice solo, but with Dylan, the further she is away from the microphone, the better.
Standing on the stage alone and confident, Dylan unleashed gritty and vibrant performances of “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Between the verses of both topical songs, Dylan lifted his guitar close to his singing microphone which created a pleasing fade in/ fade out audio effect. A group of about 15 folk performers including Pete Seeger and Peter Paul and Mary gathered in back of Dylan for a “Blowin’ in the Wind” sing-along. To the group, this was religion – they sang like they believed this song can change the world. The whiz kid folk hero was in front of the group singing the song like he was already bored with his holy anthem. It was already ancient to Dylan; he was dreaming and scheming about what was to come.
Newport 1964: All Hail The King
Phase two: It’s 1964 and Dylan is singing Mr. Tambourine Man – there’s no explanations because you can’t explain the unexplainable. 43 years later it’s still the most poetically plush jingle ever written. The change in Dylan’s demeanor is palpable. There’s a smirk on his face, electricity is oozing from every pore, he’s bursting with confidence and he’s very content and comfortable. It took me by surprise when I watched the DVD last night – this might be my favorite image of Dylan. Less than a year later, as documented in Don’t Look Back, Dylan looks weary of his fame. In Newport 1964, he embraced and basked in the spotlight that was shining on him.
Johnny Cash sang a Dylan song and hailed him, “The best songwriter of the age.” Joan Baez did a Dylan imitation for kicks during her set. Newport ‘64 came off like a celebrity roast to the 23 years old Hibbing native. Dylan was bigger than the event. After an inspiring “Chimes of Freedom,” the crowd went wild chanting “We want Bob!” Other artists were scheduled to perform making an encore impossible, but Dylan came back to address the faithful: “It’s all a matter of time, I want to say I thank you, and I love you.” It was an enchanted night in the musical kingdom of Newport.
Newport 1965: Worlds Collide
On a grey and windy afternoon, the green leaves were rustling behind Dylan as he halfheartedly sang some acoustic tunes around the same time Albert Grossman and Alan Lomax were having a Sumo wresting match. The winds of change were about to shift. Newport 1965 was an unstoppable destiny, a moment that signified a change in American culture. Did Dylan have to go electric at this particular folk festival? Dylan could have a chosen another time and place, but history was beckoning. He declared his independence from the folk movement and any other entity that would try to claim him. In the process, he expanded the boundaries for all musicians by going electric with his visionary stream of consciousness lyrics.
The changes seen in Dylan from ’63-’64 were drastic artistically, but the mere fact that he was now plugging into the world of rock and roll was immense. In his black leather jacket, Dylan went out there with his electric guitar and his typically focused intensity to deliver a blazing "Maggie’s Farm" with Michael Bloomfield, who peppered the stunned audience with his searing lead guitar. It’s a brilliant performance on its own, but if you consider the immensity of the moment and the fact that it was Dylan’s first live electric performance with a band, the results are heroic. There was a lot of cheering, but there were also many betrayed folk fans who booed loudly and lustily. I listened to it in 5.1 surround sound last night, the booing is very audible.
Just to make the occasion even more historic, the final number of the three-song set was the live debut of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Supposedly, somewhere during that set, an enraged Pete Seeger grabbed an axe and threatened to bury it into the power cables. After the short set, Peter Yarrow begged Bob to grab his axe and come back for an acoustic encore. Dylan should have grabbed Seeger’s axe and chased Yarrow around the stage, but he acquiesced and played “Mr. Tambourine Man” and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” After everything that went down, the encores were anti-climatic to say the least.
Hats off to Murray Lerner for putting this footage together the way he did. It’s the most incredible story in music history and you can watch it unfold without narration. Don’t Look Back has been the most popular Dylan documentary, but it’s just a snapshot. Any documentary on Dylan that was ever put together is inferior to The Other Side of The Mirror – Dylan’s performances speak volumes.