Monday, 27 February 2017

BOB'S BACK PAGES (BEFORE THE NOBEL PRIZE): MY BOB DYLAN HEADPRESS ARTICLE

I wrote this piece more than 15 years ago; it appeared in Headpress 18, which was published in January 2002. I came across it the other day, and wished I had remembered it around the time Bob was given the Nobel Prize, and I kept thinking about 'dogs run free/why not we' as the sub-atomic kernel of a literary conflagration. I probably wrote this quite a bit earlier than its publication, and last year I wrote about the Free Trade Hall performance on its 50th Anniversary, you can link to that article here. But I like the way this piece, which I believe started as a simple review of the Andy Gill book, moved, so here it is again. I don't believe I'd heard the official Columbia release of the concert when I wrote this, internal evidence would agree with that, so I've amended it slightly to include my hearing of it...

BOB'S BACK PAGES

The apotheosis of Bob Dylan really grew out of the period where he electrified his music, and in the process, legitimized for rock music the sort of lyrical content that folk music had carried. Even though Dylan had already produced major electric hits by 1966, and in LA groups like the Byrds were already doing Beatlized interpretations of his songs, the sense of betrayal felt by his fans of the old era was still palpable at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, on May 17 1966.
The tape of that show is probably the most famous bootleg of all time, and because the original tapes were somehow mis-identified, has always been known as the Albert Hall tape. It has been available for some time in an allegedly Italian pressing with the odd title of Guitars Kissing And The Contemporary Fix. It was supposedly dubbed from the same master tapes as Columbia’s official 'bootleg' release three years later, which retains the old, misleading title. Columbia declined to send a review copy of that official release to Headpress. You’ll have to ask them why. You would assume that they have remastered the tapes beyond what the bootleg offers, but the differences are not huge. There's a bit more of The Band audible more clearly on the electric disc (of the two disc set). Of course, now that the official release is out, the bootleg is a sort of pirate disc, and it would be very wrong of me to suggest that you search the bootleg out and deny Sony their rightful legal share of your money, because Sony’s deep love of the music and concern for Dylan’s loyal listeners deserves to be rewarded fully. And coincidentally, the disc is released for in time for Christmas too, only thirty years too late.
Whichever disc you hear, as I recounted in my review of Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic in Headpress 16, this is an extraordinary set. It marks the point where 'rock n roll' music was finally transmuted into 'rock', for better or worse. This is where it starts to transcend the pop traditions, top 40 boundaries, and even, for a short while, the control of the hustlers and conmen who handled the money. It also marks the beginning of a divide in pop music, roughly between black and white, coinciding with the move from AM top 40 radio into album-oriented FM radio.

The two disc packages begin with Dylan’s acoustic set, the Woody Guthrie Bob already shifting into something else. The second disc, with the group that would become The Band (apart from Mickey Jones here replacing Levon Helm on drums) is a revelation. It’s not just the booing from the crowd, the voice that yells “Judas”, to which Dylan replies “I don’t believe you, you're a liar” and tells the band to “Play fucking loud”. Dylan was used to this by now. At Newport in 1965 Pete Seeger had tried to cut the cables bringing power to his instruments. Al Kooper was so shook up after the crowd reaction at Forest Hills, NY (virtually Kooper’s backyard) that he quit Dylan’s band. So too did Helm, who was depressed by the constant booing.

But as Don Pennebaker’s film of Dylan’s 65 tour of Britain showed, Dylan didn’t really care. Or, as the Free Trade Hall showed, he’d adopted an attitude to deal with it. It's incredible to watch his surreal snideness in mocking the press who interview him, and painful to follow his constant disparagement of the “British Dylan”, Donovan. Pennebaker gets great footage of manager Albert Grossman in action, conning the BBC, and also a series of really creepy-crawly shots of groupie-extraordinaire Bob Neuwirth. Although everyone, including Joan Baez, seems happy to bask in Dylan’s reflected shadow, Neuwirth is more like one of those guys who carries the heavyweight champion’s belt to the ring. “Yeah champ, you got it, you the man champ, whatever you say boss.” When he starts dissing the soon to be dumped Baez, you actually start feeling sorry for her.
All of this is covered in Andy Gill’s My Back Pages. This is a useful reference book, but suffers from an anoraky tendency to miss the forest while concentrating on the trees, like a hippie on a trip studying every vein in that groovy leaf. Gill’s source interviews, especially with Al Kooper, have provided him with great material, but it isn’t distributed evenly: it’s as if the book had been finished before all the interviewing could be done, and of course Dylan himself is only here second-hand.
Fortunately, Gill is strongest in the period we’re concerned with here, the 65-66 transformation. Like an old folkie, it’s also very thorough on the early folk albums. But it tails off quickly after Highway 61 Revisited with the albums from Blonde On Blonde through Nashville Skyline getting progressively shorter shrift, which is a particular shame because The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. I wonder occasionally about Gill’s instinctive knowledge of Americana: the Bill Lee who played bass on Dylan sessions is Spike Lee’s father, which is a cool piece of trivia. When Dylan sings “his pointy shoes and his bells” he may be singing about a jester’s costume, and he may also be talking about sharply pointed Cuban-heeled shoes and flared trousers, known as bell-bottoms in America, and often “bells” in 60s jargon. That sort of nit-picking isn’t the point. Gill cares deeply about this music, and it shows throughout. Who knows what the 52 page CD booklet in the Columbia release is like, but if you didn’t behave legally and buy the official release, this book would surely make up for that loss.
The official Dylan tribute concert is old news by now, but it has been broadcast recently in the UK on VH1. It’s sad. Al Kooper gets to sit in with John Mellancamp, whose backup singers do a full Vegas assassination of “Like A Rolling Stone” while Kooper does his organ bits in anonymous obscurity. Kris Kristofferson reads off an autocue stuff written by the same kind of guys who write the intros to the Oscar ceremonies, which is no surprise since the 'musical director' comes from Saturday Night Life and prances around in centre stage but never seems to mete a solo to Steve Cropper.  The weirdest moment comes when Sinead O'Connor tries to face down a New York crowd, and they send her backstage crying.
There are a few good points. Richie Havens seems to have lost nothing in 30 years, and Tracy Chapman seems a bit like Havens’ reborn. But apart from Booker T & the MGs, the only people who appear to be enjoying themselves are Eric Clapton, who does a brilliant job as a sort of chairman of the board, and, in sharp contrast to Clapton’s executive sleekness, Neil Young, who bounds around the stage like a kid set free by Dylan’s 60s brilliance. The Band is represented by the 1992 version, with Jim Weider on guitar and no Robbie Robertson, nor Richard Manuel, who was dead, but Garth's on accordion and Levon is back playing mandolin. When Dylan himself appears, you realise how many great epitaphs he’s already written. “I Shall Be Released” (sung at Richard funeral), “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”, “Forever Young”and yes, "My Back Pages'.  You wish it were true. Bob’s own performance is a letdown; I couldn’t help but feel we were hearing that same sort of mumbling he used to put off the crowds back in 1966 after they'd booed him. Thirty years on, and that’s what it’s come to.



MY BACK PAGES: Classic Bob Dylan 1962-69
Andy Gill
Carlton Books, 144pp, £14.99 (1998)

THE “ROYAL ALBERT HALL” CONCERT 1966
Bob Dylan & the Hawks
Sony/Columbia CD 1998

GUITARS KISSING AND THE CONTEMPORARY FIX
Bob Dylan & the Hawks
Bootleg CD (no label) 1995

THE BOB DYLAN 30th ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE CONCERT (1992)
VH1

DONT LOOK BACK (1967)
a film directed by DA Pennebacker

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