My Imaginary Back Pages
Rock Fans Outraged as Bob Dylan Goes Electronica: Audience members at the Newport Rock Festival were “outraged” Monday when rock icon Bob Dylan followed up such classic hits as “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Maggie’s Farm” with an electronica set composed of atonal drones, hyperactive drumbeats, and the repeated mechanized lyric “Dance to the club life!”
The Onion, July 12, 2010
This week marks the 45th anniversary of one of the defining moments in American musical history, except there’s one little catch. Most of it probably never happened. This much we know is true: at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan “went electric” for the first time in a live performance, leaving some folk traditionalists like Pete Seeger less than impressed. But the legend goes way beyond that, implying that the shock of Dylan’s new sound provoked near-riotous anger along the lines of what Igor Stravinsky encountered at the 1913 Armory Show debut of The Rite of Spring. Todd Haynes’ 2007 movie of Dylan’s multiple personalities, I’m Not There, builds up the tallest parts of the tale, showing Jude Quinn, the Cate Blanchett character based on the too-cool-for-school electric Dylan circa 1965, enduring loud boos as the band machine-guns its way through a short electric set. The mild-mannered Seeger suddenly goes ballistic and tries to cut the amp wires with an ax.
The standard sequel to the Newport saga, known in Dylanspeak as the Judas Incident, occurred in May 1966 during a show at Manchester, England’s Free Trade Hall. When Dylan appeared with his electric band, an audience heckler famously called him “Judas.” Dylan’s next words, while hiliarous, seem awkwardly tied to that insult: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”
The Dylan-goes-electric legend calls to mind Robin Williams’ old line that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there. As a next-generation teenager in Chicago, I found it hard to believe that in 1965, more than a few fossils could have gotten hot and bothered over Dylan playing a bit of amplified blues-rock. Even in his early acoustic phase, Dylan and many of his fans revered Muddy Waters, who started plugging in decades earlier, and T-Bone Walker, who sometimes played loud electric guitar tricks with his teeth while Jimi Hendrix was still a babe in diapers. The Band’s Robbie Robertson has said that in the Sixties, “going electric” was about as shocking as using a television.
Some context here: even at the height of his coolness, being Young Bob, despite a few perks, must have been a bit of a bum ride. People unaccustomed to nudity kept walking in and surrounding him with pencils and pens. He got a fraction of Mick Jagger’s or even Neil Diamond’s action, and his songs were too long and moody to be sung in sports arenas. All he really wanted to do was hop a freight train out of Hibbing, Minnesota, humming Jimmie Rodgers songs. Yet as soon as he started writing little ditties with titles like “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” people started acting like he was some kind of protest singer. Go figure.
And then it started getting really weird. The ghost of electricity started howling in the bones of his face, planting messages in a dense, cryptic code. After that, he couldn’t utter a simple statement–for example, “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule”–without having some smarty-pants Wittgenstein scholars turning him into their dissertation themes. When pressed to define himself for those well over thirty, he defined himself as well under thirty. But he probably felt prematurely senile.
Are the Newport and Judas legends of Dylan’s mid-youth fact or fiction? To paraphrase Pete Townshend, the simple things you see are all complicated. Pete Seeger did admit to telling the sound crew at Newport he would have liked to chop the wires with an ax. But I met Seeger once, and I personally doubt he’s used anything sharper than hedge trimmers in his life. One of the organizers of the 1965 Newport show, Bruce Jackson, recalled that the audience response to Dylan was largely favorable, despite the fact that his ragged electric pickup band barely had time to rehearse. Jackson attributes most of the unfavorable reaction not to Dylan, but to the bewildered emcee, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, who had tried to keep Dylan to the same very short time limit as more obscure traditional acts. When a hostile audience wanted Bob back, the awkwardly goateed Yarrow awkwardly goaded Dylan to come back out with his acoustic guitar.
Now an English professor, Jackson cited the Newport myth in his book The Story is True, which surveys moments in American cultural history where the popular narrative is disconnected from what actually happened. The “Judas” story is partly myth as well. The heckler has been found, and he really was annoyed (mainly with the sound system drowning out the vocals). But Dylan’s “you’re a liar” response came after a lengthy interlude, and was almost certainly directed at yet another heckler. And that’s where we lose it: the other heckler’s comment is inaudible in the only known concert recordings.
Sadly, too much time has passed for the Warren Commission to investigate the two-hecklers theory. And don’t even think of asking Oliver Stone or Michael Moore. Since we’ll probably never know, you might as well make up your own favorite “second Dylan heckle” for May 1966. Here are my top five suggestions:
1. Bob, someday one of your songs will be used to sell women’s lingerie.
2. Bob, that poster-turning film gimmick for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” will later be used in birthday party invitations and corporate ad campaigns.
3. Bob, you will one day tell people you are a born-again Christian, and it will not be a joke.
4. Bob, in the future human communication will be reduced to a series of mechanical gestures known as posts, tweets, and skypes. “Posts” on a “website” called Right Wing Bob will repeat your most antisocial remarks and claim them as conservative political statements.
5. Bob, remember that Berkeley student, Greil Marcus, who keeps stalking you? If you don’t get a protective order before he makes it to graduate school, he will start writing books explaining how every little random thing you did in your twenties was a defining moment in American history. Go directly to your lawyer now.
All these things came true, of course. But at least Dylan could have plausibly denied all of them in May 1966. Fortunately, the actual Dylan is usually much funnier than most of the people who try to worship him even after he tried to scare them all off with albums like Self Portrait and Live at Budokan. The “real” Dylan–the song-and-dance man, the provocateur, the walking encyclopedia of American roots music–was amply on display a just few years ago, during his surprisingly genial hundred-episode gig as DJ for the Theme Time Radio Hour, whose loose format allowed him to craft inspired playlists on everything from cats and dogs to trains and body parts.
But Dylan’s radio shows had a secret weapon. Who was that mysterious caller who kept leaving DJ Dylan bizarre phone messages? Was it teenager trying to sound like a grizzled Delta bluesman? An aging drifter with too much time on his hands? Nope. The reliably hilarious call-in guy actually turned out to be America’s foremost collector of spray-painted macaroni art, Tom Waits. Below is a clip of Tom giving Bob his best shots on things like investment tips, marmalade, women’s feet, extinct birds, decapitated British bakers, and traditional Jewish curses. Dylan couldn’t have had a better sidekick for his ragged journey through his, and our, imaginary back pages.
Tom Waits phoning in messages to Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour”
T-Bone Walker, “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong”
Bob Dylan, “I Don’t Believe You”