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The legend of Dylan at Newport

What really happened the night the music changed?

By Sam Allis, Globe Staff, 7/28/2002

There are hordes of us waiting to hear Dylan on a Sunday night in July. It rained this afternoon and we're damp and cold and lit. There's the dark and the flash like a field of lightning bugs, and everybody seemed to lose the folks they came with around sunset.

A little after nine, the man comes out in a leather jacket and a sunburst Fender Stratocaster, with a motley backup cobbled together from ... that looks like some of Paul Butterfield's band ... and that's got to be Al Kooper on organ.

Whoa. Where's the blue work shirt and the acoustic guitar and the usual menu of whiny protest songs like "Masters of War"? The Dylan whose picking we copy and whose songs we sing, badly - where is this guy?

We all stagger to our feet for the crown prince. Then he lets go with a ragged version of a song we've never heard. Can't understand a word of it, but it's definitely electric. There are boos now, from the purists aghast at his apostasy. You can't buy publicity like that. But more of us are bellowing our approval of whatever it is he's doing.

Then he plays "Maggie's Farm," the single we heard earlier this year, and finally the anthem that has blanketed the airwaves for weeks, "Like a Rolling Stone." Most of us already know the thing by heart.

The sound system is lousy, and Dylan can't play electric worth a damn. No matter. His music is lost in a soup of noise and chaos. It's dark and everything is nuts. There are people yelling because they love it. There are people booing because they hate it. There are people wondering what the hell is going on.

It doesn't get any better than this.

Then he's gone. The guy walks offstage after three songs. Or was it four, maybe five? Was he really in leather? Maybe that wasn't Kooper. Someone said they saw Pete Seeger running around trying to kill the sound.

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?

- Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"

What's happening here is one of those legendary moments that illuminate the timeline of pop music, the iconic events that also change the course of it. Think Elvis Presley or the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, Jimi Hendrix with his guitar on fire at Monterey, Bruce Springsteen sounding like "rock and roll future" at the Harvard Square Theater.

Think Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

What Dylan did that night was change music bigtime. There were a mere 15,000 who witnessed the most stunning of Dylan's endless transformations. After a mere three songs, he sashayed off

into history to release, one after the other, a trio of electric classics: "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited," and "Blonde on Blonde"

The legend was born: Dylan was booed off stage in a tectonic shift in music. David Hajdu, author of a book about the man and those times, "Positively 4th Street," calls it "one of the most enduring myths of postwar popular culture.

Those memories are back, along with the man himself. Dylan will play Newport this Saturday night for the first time since 1965. And Club Passim (formerly the folk mecca Club 47) and Arlington's Regent Theatre will present a "Newport Then & Now" program tomorrow night. This will include the documentary film "Festival!" about Newport in its prime, with footage of the big night.

What will Dylan do at the folk festival this time? "I wonder if he'll try to start another riot this year," says Hajdu, who muses that he might go Tin Pan Alley or disco. Kooper says he should fake everyone out and play solo.

A sign of change

Before Dylan zigged, no American musician had challenged folk as the preeminent musical idiom among hip American youth in the mid-'60s. And it had moral authority. Remember, it was Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" that Peter, Paul, and Mary sang next to Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. (The Beatles called the trio "Pizza, Pooh, and Magpie.") Two years later, Dylan moved on without so much as a kiss goodbye.

"He was very conscious of his image," Hajdu says. "He has a phototropic attention to the action, and folk no longer conferred `cool."'

We were on the cusp of a lot of things besides music that summer. America's ancien regime was in its last days. Hair was still relatively short. A lot of undergraduates wore coats and ties to class. The drugs that would flood Woodstock a mere four years later hadn't arrived yet for many. The civil rights movement was cooking. JFK's assassination was behind us, but the bloody chaos of 1968 lay ahead. There was Vietnam, but the antiwar movement had yet to coalesce.

(On the day of Dylan's performance, the Globe reported on its front page that President Lyndon Johnson was on the verge of enlarging the United States presence in Vietnam. Also this: "It's Definite - MBTA Yards Site of Kennedy Library.")

The Dylan experience at Newport 37 years ago is now a study in the vagaries of memory. There exists no official version of what happened. There can't be. Everyone who was there, and a bunch who weren't, is convinced with moral certainty that his or her version is the authoritative one.

"Some 15,000 people saw Dylan's set," writes Hajdu, "and everyone who touched a different part of that elephant came away with his or her own mental picture of the beast."

(I was there and, for any number of reasons, remember little. I will swear, though, that Dylan wore an orange polka-dot shirt. And if he didn't, he should have. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Pete Seeger may or may not have run around with an ax trying to cut the electric cord during Dylan's performance. Dylan may or may not have been booed at all. If he was, blame (a) the brevity of his gig, (b) the poor quality of the sound system, or (c) his music. The boos did or did not bother him. He may or may not have had a tear in his eye when he returned to placate the folkies with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." And so forth.

"This is the perfect myth for American pop culture," Hajdu says. "A rebel alone, challenging the establishment, challenging an older generation. The disputes helped magnify the event into legend. What really happened that night was later inflated."

Agreed, says Dick Pleasants, folk DJ at WUMB and WGBH and an eminence grise on the subject: "Everyone knows about it. They all have a story about it. That's why it's a legend."

A shocking set, but why?

The board of the Newport Folk Foundation, the group that ran the event, was composed of acoustic elder statesmen like Seeger and Alan Lomax. They only learned at the sound check that afternoon that Dylan was going to play electric. They were unamused.

That they felt blindsided is astonishing, given that "Like a Rolling Stone" was a hit single on the Top 40 charts in the weeks before Newport. Dylan had finished recording "Bringing It All Back Home," his first electric album.

"Where was the shock? What did they expect?" asks bluesman Chris Smither. "People who dug what he was doing so far outweighed those who felt betrayed."

There already had been trouble. Lomax, no lover of electric intruders, had given a tart introduction to Paul Butterfield and his band earlier in the festival. Albert Grossman, who managed Butterfield as well as Dylan, didn't appreciate Lomax's words, and the two ended up in spirited fisticuffs. If anyone needed an image of the two warring worlds that weekend, this was it. (Lomax, an indispensable force in the discovery and preservation of regional folk music in this country, particularly in the South, died nine days ago. His legacy and his loss are huge.)

Kooper's version is that the booing occurred because Dylan had spent a mere 15 minutes on stage, not because of the electric music. The band played only three songs because it knew only three songs, hastily rehearsed at a Newport mansion the entire previous night, he says.

"Most people performed 45 minutes to an hour," maintains Kooper. "We played about 15 minutes and we were the headliners. The bulk of the audience was not horrified by it. They loved Bob Dylan and were also capable of going to a Rolling Stones concert. But three songs - you'd be [angry], too.

Wrong, says Bob Jones, producer of this year's folk festival, who was backstage in 1965. "The sets were very small in order to get everyone in," he recalls. "Maybe five songs, 20 minutes. I didn't hear any booing."

Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) was the MC that night. After Dylan had left the stage, says Kooper, Yarrow told him: "You can't leave them there like that. Go out there and play something. Here, take my guitar." Dylan grudgingly went out and sang "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

"That was the great moment, not the electric moment," Kooper says about that song, "because the message really meant something." (Dylan also played "Mr. Tambourine Man," but "Baby Blue" was the one that bit.)

George Wein was also on stage that night, off to the side, and claims he was the one who told Dylan he had to go out again. And the boos? "There were a lot of boos about the music," says Wein, who founded the festival in 1959, produced it in 1965, and is the executive director of this year's iteration. "It wasn't about the 15 minutes. Al Kooper was wrong. He was just defending his noise."

Hajdu writes that musician Geoff Muldaur blamed the boos on the performance: "It was just that Dylan wasn't very good at it. He had no idea how to play the electric guitar, and he had very second-rate musicians with him and they hadn't rehearsed enough. There is no doubt in my mind that people booed because it stank."

Leading the transition

So did Seeger go berserk at the electric music? "Pete did not run around with an ax. I know. I was with him," Wein says. "He did ask if there were any way to turn the sound down. The ax story came from the fact that Pete does some folk songs with an ax on stage."

And the phantom tear? Hajdu writes that in a photo of Dylan taken when he was back on stage to placate the faithful, there is a tear running down his left cheek as he sang. If so, no one else saw it. Dylan indeed heard the booing, but it didn't bother him much. He was already long gone from folk.

So why the big deal about the electric set? Butterfield and the Chambers Brothers, after all, had both played electric music earlier that weekend.

Because it was Dylan. The star of folk had abandoned its orthodoxy and left its true believers - a clear minority of his audience - bereft. Those purists had believed he was one of them. Silly people. Dylan is always looking for an exit.

Did Dylan actually change anything that night?

Yes. He gave rock 'n' roll grown-up lyrics.

"Up to that point, rock 'n' roll was powerful music with throw-away lyrics," Kooper says. "I don't feel Newport was a transition lyrically. But for rock 'n' roll music, it was a gigantic transition. He put in it something to think about. Newport was the first time he put this on stage live."

That sounds right. "Like a Rolling Stone" hit the American consciousness and blew away rock's bubble-gum lyrics like those in the Ronettes' classic "Be My Baby." (That said, the Ronettes and the Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" belong on rock's Mount Rushmore.) Dylan's language influenced everyone from the Beatles on down.

"Music doesn't matter with Dylan," Kooper claims. "It didn't matter that he had an electric band at Newport. It was just a better way to reach people. It was the the presentation. The lyrics didn't change, and the rest is pure garbage."

Doubtful. Kooper has a point about the primacy of Dylan's lyrics, but the music mattered, too. "The question is, can you measure how much he changed music that night?" asks Pleasants. Even Hajdu, who rejects cosmic judgments about Newport, concedes there may be "more than a grain of truth" to the premise that Dylan gave birth to folk rock.

No one else in the second half of the 20th century staked a bigger claim to new musical territory and, by the sheer force of will, brought people to him. The Beatles took us to new places with "Rubber Soul" and later "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." But the shock and speed of Dylan's trajectory was sharper than that of Lennon and McCartney.

So at 61, Dylan plays on. His baby face is long gone, as is his voice. He looks spectral now, and his shock value has faded. But one thing has stayed the same: Nobody has a clue what he's thinking.

This story ran on page L1 of the Boston Globe on 7/28/2002.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.