Dylan, part two: Wild Mercury and the Ghost of ‘Lectricity

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On the evening of July 25th, 1965, Bob Dylan got up on stage to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. It wasn’t for the first time. Two years previously, he had been its star turn, notably performing Blowin’ in the Wind with Peter, Paul and Mary. His performance in 1964, attracted criticism from some. With God on Our Side was the kind of thing the audience wanted to hear (and with Joan Baez, see part one here), but Mr Tambourine Man was heading somewhere very different. Nonetheless, it was the familiar guitar, harmonica and that rasping voice.

On the 24th, Dylan had performed three songs on acoustic. None were what might be remotely seen as protest songs. On the 25th, he came to the stage wearing black jeans and boots. In place of the familar acoustic, he was carrying a Fender Stratocaster; and, he had a band.

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Dylan had gone electric.

Stories of that night are now the stuff of legend. Half the audience booed, the other half cheered. Some say Pete Seeger tried to take an axe to the electric cable that supplied the amps. Others say the sound was muddy, distorted and awful. What was certainly true was that Dylan was making a statement. He opened with Maggie’s Farm:

Well, I try my best to be just like I am
But everybody wants you to be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
Ah, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

To make the point further, he then crashed into Like a Rolling Stone: its vehemence spits out still:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Then, returning with his acoustic, he performed Mr Tambourine Man and, to make his point again, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

He wouldn’t perform at Newport again that century.

Contrary to myth, this was not ‘the day Dylan went electric’. His album, Bringing it all Back Home, had been released back in March. Not only was there nothing in the way of protest, but it opened with the riff of Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business and an avalanche of seemingly stream of consciousness (and witty) verse.

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

But it did make a point: ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’ and

You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows

And, Subterranean Homesick Blues came with a brilliant promo film:

And the album cover made a point too. Whatever this was, it  weren’t no blueshirt folkie:

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Now, Dylan was cool.

Like a Rolling Stone had been released just five days before Newport. It broke the rules. For a start, it was six minutes long, in an age where pop singles were three minutes. Musically, this wasn’t folk. Al Kooper’s organ drew upon Alan Price’s playing on The Animals House of the Rising Sun (you can listen to that here). Lyrically, it took the (often violently sexist) put-down song so beloved of the era (think the Stones’ classic album Aftermath) and took it somewhere else entirely. From ‘Napoleon in rags’ to ‘stare into the vacuum of his eyes’:

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

If the times were changing, so was popular music.

In doing so, Dylan was leaving what Neil Young would call ‘the old folky days’ a long way behind him. Dylan’s next single was recorded during the sessions that would make up his next album, Highway 61 Revisited. If Rolling Stone had allied vitriol to poetry, Positively 4th Street just stuck to the vitriol. Greenwich Village’s Fourth Street (as seen on the front cover of Freewheelin’, see part one), had been the home of the Village folk scene that had welcomed and promoted the young folkie. Now, post-Newport:

You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend

And the brilliant, vicious, final put down:

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you

But, what Dylan was doing in 1965/66 was so much more. In part it was the sound: Dylan once said that what he was looking for was ‘that thin, wild mercury sound’. He drew from blues, folk and rock and roll to create a new kind of musical frame.

And yes, the bitter or sardonic tone. Set to a gorgeous country blues melody, Bringing it all Back Home gave us She Belongs to Me. Sardonic, and beautiful:

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you’ll wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees

But the tenderness Dylan had shown could also be there. The same album gave us Love Minus Zero/No Limit, with its ceremonies of the horsemen’ and:

My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

In 1966, after some less than successful attempts to record in New York with his live backing band, The Hawks (who would later become simply, The Band), Dylan headed down to Nashville, and began recording with some of its leading session men. Blonde on Blonde would give us the wild mercury, and the blistering rock and roll, but also the jaunty country-tinged I Want You. But even this seemingly simple love song gave us a ‘guilty undertaker sighs’, the ‘Queen of Spades’; ‘cracked bells and washed out horns’.

The best known song on the album may well be Just like a Woman. Its refrain even has an echo of Rolling Stone:

She takes just like a woman, yes
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl

But the tenderness and vulnerability have returned. It starts by claiming something the song knows is simply not true:

Nobody feels any pain

And she, ‘With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls’ breaks. But he is no less vulnerable:

But when we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world

And its melody is just plain beautiful:

The 13-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands gives us his true love with her ‘mercury mouth in the missionary times’.

All three of the albums are lyrically dazzling. There is a wild, surreal , inventiveness. Highway 61 Revisited itself has God saying to Abraham ‘kill me a son’ to starting the next world war. Tombstone Blues gives us the ‘city fathers, trying to endorse, the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse’.

Of all the imagery on Highway 61, the epic Desolation Row stands out, from its opening line:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging

Through an array of Cinderella, ‘Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame’, the Good Samaritan and ‘Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood’, we find Ophelia, whose ‘sin is her lifelessness’, her eyes’ fixed on Noah’s great rainbow’, or:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row

By Blonde on Blonde, that will also see Stuck Inside a Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again:

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well

Back on Highway 61, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues gave us another template. A world weariness:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez when it’s Easter time, too
And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through

And, with an aching beauty:

Sweet Melinda, the peasants call her the goddess of gloom
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room
And you’re so kind and careful not to go to her too soon
And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon

The greatest song on Blonde on Blonde was Visions of Johanna. The wordplay now has a depth, and ethereal beauty.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

It’s as if he is haunted, not merely by the vision of her, but by reality too:

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Dylan made two famously documented tours of the UK in 1965 and 1966, both filmed by DA Pennebaker. Don’t Look Now, the film of the ’65 tour, was released. Martin Scorcese used both sets of footage for the brilliant documentary No Direction Home.

On the ’66 tour he played an acoustic set, though one focused on songs like Visions of Johanna, and then  a second electric set. On May 21st, he played Newcastle City Hall (below, he is backstage before his opening acoustic set).

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To say that reactions to the second set were mixed is something of an understatement. Here’s the reaction of some members of that audience.

By then, Dylan was pretty strung out.

Two years of constant touring, recording and writing (including his prose poem, Tarantula), confrontation and, it must be admitted, drugs, had taken their toll. The music was magnificent, especially given the equipment they had to hand in the mid-‘sixties.

One song on Highway 61 was Ballad of a  Thin Man. It’s another of Dylan’s spiteful ripostes, though exactly to whom is never clear:

‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

But given the reaction of some members of the audience, its not hard to gauge Dylan’s feelings. It is, simply, magnificent: and it was at our very own City Hall.

Four days earlier, Dylan had played Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. As his set was coming to its end, this happened:

A few weeks later, Dylan would use a motorcycle crash as the reason for pulling out of touring, and retreat to Woodstock, in rural New York State. Musically, and lyrically, he stepped back too.

In his early years, Dylan had brought folk music to the masses, civil rights and radical politics too. Now, in just 18 months in 1965/66, Dylan had transformed popular music into high art, and produced three masterpieces which are, even now, undimmed. Others would try and catch up but, in truth, they would never equal.

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