I came to Bob Dylan late. Very late. In fact, if I’m being totally honest, I think I was 31 before I listened to an entire Dylan record. Specifically, an interesting stranger at a party said, “You need to buy a copy of Highway 61 Revisited. If you’re a writer, you have to listen to Dylan at least a little bit.” I said, “Okay?”
The stranger nodded. Looked over his glasses. “I’m serious.”
“Well, let me get out my notebook. I’m not going to remember this in five minutes. Highway. . . sixty-what?”
If you’re wondering why I never listened to Dylan, any Dylan, I will tell you this about that: I was told there was a folk singer who played these pretty little ditties about peace, and then he had a motorcycle accident and a head injury, and the next thing you know, the folksinger with the pretty songs and the lingering head injury was writing creepy lyrics like “Lay lady lay. . . lay across my big brass bed.”
Does that sound appealing to you?
Now, you know why it took me so long to listen to Dylan.
Plus, there was a period in the ‘90s that if you saw a picture of Dylan (which was rare), he looked so pissed off and so tired of you already, that you just didn’t want to bother the man.
Since then, I found out what ticked him off so badly, and between you and me, the tiredness was merely the aftereffect of what turned him from the guarded young man in the black jacket and the white t-shirt staring out from the cover of Highway 61 Revisited to the guy in the ‘90s who shrugged on stage with his guitar, looked at the audience, blinked like an owl, played three songs, and called it a night.
Here’s the short version:
Bob Dylan was a brilliantly talented young folk singer who was supposed to take folk music into the next generation. Dylan decided that he had absorbed everything folk music had to offer at the moment, and he was done.
His final gift to the folk world, which was then coaxing along to it’s apex of popularity in 1965, was to write this album, the one we’re talking about now, full of electric instruments: organs, electric guitar, and some opaque, hard-as-dirty-diamonds lyrics.
His cocked eyebrow on the cover says it all: “Yeah? I’m your folk poster child?” (Looks over his shoulder to the rest of the members of The Band.) “Got the noisemaker ready? Let’s go, man. Play it loud.”
Around the same time that I bought this album, I watched the comprehensive, heartbreaking Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, which informs a lot of the history of what I’m writing to you now.
When I watched this documentary, though, I was going through a period of artistic crisis, and this crisis was ripping me up. I watched pop-eyed as Pete Seeger, folk music’s nicest frontman— who looks like a guy who would hug you and buy you dinner and loan you his car for the day— shake with rage at the memory of Dylan playing an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival.
He pissed off Pete Seeger.
How the hell do you piss off Pete Seeger?!?
By telling Seeger, in blasting form, that his time is over and that you’re not going to be his creature any more:
“How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be without home.
Like a complete unknown.
Like a rolling stone.”
Now, I understand that sounds harsh, but I’ve seen the Seeger interviews, and that guy thought Dylan was his man.
And I know all the rumors that Dylan wrote “Rolling Stone” about Edie Sedgwick, the loveliest, most artistically- and aesthetically-talented bleached blonde carwreck-darling of her generation.
(I’ve read a lot about Sedgwick. It’s a sadder story than anyone could get from a biopic. You will want to give that one a hug after reading her story.)
But, Dylan wasn’t writing her story and he wasn’t Seeger’s fancy folk boy, either.
Dylan belonged to Dylan, and that’s the way it was gonna be.
It was the way it always had been with Dylan, but nobody was paying attention to what he was saying.
That’s how real artists are, my friends. Who owns them? Their art. On a short leash.
To me, “Like A Rolling Stone” feels as though Dylan is talking to himself. He’s walking away. He knows the cost of his own choices. The cost is high, my friends.
Here’s a little taster of his European tour for this album:
Bristol, England: First set, acoustic.
Audience response: Cheers!
Second set, electric: Dylan and the Band play the first chords of “Tombstone Blues.”
Audience response: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooOOOOOOOO!
Paris, France: First set, acoustic.
Audience response: Bon!
Second set, electric: Dylan and the Band open with “Tombstone Blues.”
Audience response: NOOooOOONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!
In the cascade of clips of the European tour for Highway 61, you get to witness Dylan go from a young genius with a hard set to his chin, to a young genius with the gritty, gritted teeth of a musician who has been booed in at least 10 languages.
He’s going to see this through because he believes in what he’s doing, and by the way, F–k you, Europe! Very much! Let’s GO, man! PLAY IT LOUD!
(The Americans booed and cried. The Europeans booed, cried, and threatened him bodily.)
And what does The Band look like during this whole manic, sonic disaster of a tour?
They look as though they’re refreshed from their nap, and wondering what’s being served for dinner. And, oh, we have a gig tonight, Dylan? Do you think we’re gonna get booed Dylan?
Dylan: (Sound of jaw grinding like an old lock.) Sure, why not? With the advance press, this crowd will probably throw rotten fruit.
The Band: (Shrugs off the psychic baggage.) You eat dinner yet?
Dylan: (Pinches eyes shut with thumb and forefinger like closing a pair of window shades) Does broken glass count?
(The Band wanders off to find food or a bed or fool around with their instruments.)
And all we have is Dylan, in the dark, that night and forevermore, biting off the lyrics to you and me and everybody:
Well, the sword swallower
he comes up to you and
then he kneels.
He crosses himself
and then he
Clicks his high heels.
And without further notice,
he asks you how it feels.
And he says,
Here is your throat back.
Thanks for the loan.
And you know something is happening,
but you don’t know what it is,
do you, Mr. Jones?”
A long time ago, I went through an intense, sweaty, long artistic crisis that marked me hard. A stranger suggested I buy a Dylan album and I did, after a fashion.
But watching Dylan punch his way through the tour for this album, sticking to his ideals as if his life depended on it, and in a way it did, I’d like to say that I was healed miraculously, and returned to writing.
But hat’s not how it happened for me at all.
Still, I’ve got Dylan in my soul now, and if he could take some European boos and American tears and one manically pissed-off Pete Seeger wandering around the Newport Folk Festival trying to find an ax to shut him down— I think I can figure the rest of my stuff out.
This is a personal essay, and not a piece of gen-u-ine rock criticism. In fact, I’ve played with the facts in a few important places.
The three songs Dylan played at Newport in ’65 did not include “Like A Rolling Stone,” as that was recorded months later.
The quotes I made up, obviously, but it turns out he actually DID say “Play it loud!” (!) (When I was making up the dialogue, this statement felt Dylanesque, but it turns out, he said that exact statement at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965!)
To support this album, he toured the U.S., Europe, and Australia. (So, Acoustic set, Australia: YEsssss. Electric set: OiiiiIiiii!)
And finally, an answer to the million dollar question:
Did Pete Seeger really go looking for an axe that day?
YES HE DID!