The Day Dylan Plugged In, Tuned Up And Freaked 'Em Out.
By Dave McElfresh
HOW MANY FOLKSINGERS does it take to change a lightbulb? Six: one to change the bulb and five to whine about how things were better before we went electric.
And we did whine, unquestionably, when the exceptional Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall Concert" handed us a Bob Dylan stripped of his piercing social commentary, as the (nonetheless accurate) cliché goes. Unfairly, nearly all the attention given to this long-bootlegged concert centers on the second, electric half of the concert, made all the more electrifying by the indignant audience's reactions between cuts.
But the first, acoustic half of the concert may prove to be the better--and no less radical--set. Here, Dylan begins to share the cryptic, diary-like lyrics (that would later reach perfection on Desire and Blood On The Tracks); writing considerably more engaging than what he had offered on previous albums; lyrics now far more personal than pedantic. Listeners must have wondered just who the hell was Dylan hanging out with that resulted in such twisted, colorful short stories?
The singer was still protesting, but the verbal retaliation was now on a personal rather than social level, the poetic quality of lyrics usually slamming old lovers saving him from being labeled a misogynist. The response was positive, though no doubt those accustomed to the newspaper-current editorials on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan must have wondered what in God's name he meant with "Desolation Row's" lines: Here comes the blind commissioner/They've got him in a trance/One hand is tied to the tightrope walker/the other is in his pants. Most of the other lines in this eleven-minute song had to have been just as oblique to an audience approving of his monarchy over the folk scene.
But the sincerity and intimacy of these songs is the best proof that whatever he was referencing in his quirky lyrics, he damn well was not merely stringing together goofy metaphors just to piss off loads of folkies. Anyone can write music to piss off the status quo (Marilyn Manson is the most recent dork contrary for the sake of being contrary); Dylan, however, was obviously relating stories that, in spite of forced interpretations found in scholarly assessments like British professor Aidan Day's Jokerman, that continue to remain a puzzle.
But during this concert, listeners only had to wait until after intermission to understand the warning in the acoustic "Visions Of Johanna" where he sang, The country music station plays soft/but there's nothing, really nothing, to turn on.
LIVE 1966 MAY go down as the only music album best known for something said, not sung: "play fucking loud," he audibly tells his new, electrified band when the catcalls begin.
It was not the first time the recently plugged-in singer had been met with such response, nor would it be the last. In fact, so consistently nasty were audience responses in most cities that drummer Levon Helm bowed out of the tour.
Dylan's drastic, quantum leap from acoustic social commentator in a denim workshirt to becoming the very first natty, Telecaster-whacking, open-diary cynic/songwriter was music's equivalent of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium: sometimes we evolve in majestic leaps rather than through mundane, predictable shuffling.
Dylan had gone too far too fast, and now, over 30 years later, we get to hear (legally, this time) the famous clash between a distorted guitar and a disturbed audience. The score: audience, 0; Dylan, status as the patron saint of rebels.
But too much is made of what Dylan suffered when thrown to the lions of folk music. Yeah, he was initially hurt by the response, but by the time of this recording he is intentionally goading the audience; otherwise, he'd not look for trouble by interjecting such obvious troublemaking: "This is called, 'Yes I See You've Got Your Brand New Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat'," he says in an all too-cutesy voice to a crowd he's successfully brought to sneers.
The tuneup time between songs is sometimes so lengthy as to suggest that he's waiting for the pious yells of resentment.
Hell, he even uses the crowd's hand-clapping protest as a means of establishing the beat of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." The lyrics, I'll do anything in this God-almighty world, if you just don't make me hurt, obviously don't apply to those he's assaulting with his radical change in music/lyrics/appearance. The listener is given the impression that Dylan would be disappointed if the audience preferred to applaud over being appalled.
IRONICALLY, WHEN the electrified Dylan left the stage of the Newport Folk Festival the previous year (when Dylan first implemented an electric band), the angry crowd was calmed with a solo harmonica version of "Rock Of Ages," played by folkie Mel Lyman, who later become a militant Manson-like commune leader and wrote Autobiography Of A World Savior.
Dylan would also later make radical switches in camps, even becoming a fundamentalist Christian spouting clichéd tripe straight from The 700 Club. The ultimate style-fucker was eventually relegated to shaking up his followers through personas and career moves shocking in their conservativeness: playing the country bumpkin of John Wesley Harding, releasing the bizarre, double album of what then was seemingly cutting-room-floor material, Self Portrait, and proselytizing via Slow Train Coming and Saved. Just how outside could Dylan get after this 1966 concert?
The tour proved to be the death of folk music as the current
trend--something the attending worshippers of Saint Pete Seeger
must have felt was inevitable. But, as former Elektra label head
Jac Holzman says of the new Dylan in his Follow The Music:
"Going electric didn't mean falsifying anything any more
than acoustic music was a guarantee of integrity." So much
for high voltage having anything to do with a wall
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