Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They're Spoon-feeding Casanova (Part Two)

Part One

Contrast the crowd during the acoustic set and the electric set of Bob Dylan's 5/17/1966 show (and any from that tour, really), and you’d think you were listening to two different shows. The audience that was so polite and stunningly quiet during the acoustic set can’t stop buzzing, even as the musicians are tuning their instruments before the first song begins.

Dylan and the Hawks waste absolutely no time in Set #2, starting off with “Tell Me Momma”, which is, musically, the best, most straight-forward rock song in the Dylan catalog, containing a fantastic mini-solo by Robbie Robertson.

Quick aside: a few years ago, I was designing a website for an online web development course, and so naturally the theme of the website was, in so many words, “I’m a music nerd.” In it, I set up my perfect backing band. Robbie Robertson was the lead guitarist, almost completely because of his work on this song. And because I’m sure you’re dying to know this, I believe the rest of the band was Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard on rhythm guitar; Sherman Holmes, Curtis Mayfield’s bassist in the ‘70s, on bass; ?uestlove of The Roots on drums, and Chardy McEwan of Pat McGee Band on percussion.

Anyway, the Dylan that was slurring words and going through the motions before the setbreak is now crisp and excited and practically shouting the chorus (“TELL ME MOMMAAAAAAAAAA/What is it/WHAT’s wrong with yoooouuuu/THIIIS...TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIME”). Looking at video footage on Eat the Document and No Direction Home, he’s too excited to stay still...he’s fidgety the whole second set.

The buzz picks up again the moment the song is over. Part of this is frustration with the new music, though apparently some of the frustration was for the same reasons as the booing in Newport: the amps and speakers being used just weren’t meant to be turned up this loud.

Dylan toys with his harmonica for a second and introduces the next song: “This is called ‘I Don’t Believe You.’ It used to be like that, and now it goes like this.” The fraction of the crowd that actually wants to hear the new sound laughs, but it’s pretty subdued. The song itself is a great reworking of a previous acoustic classic. The audacity of messing with a classic offends quite a few people because the shouts and slow-clapping start immediately after the song ends. It will only threaten to get worse after a reworked version of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” (never one of my favorites), from his debut album, follows.

By this time, though, you can begin to hear a battle beginning, as the “We like the new stuff, besides what did you expect? This is where his music's been going, so shut up and listen,” part of the crowd gets much louder and more boisterous in their cheering. That, combined with only about a 15-second break between songs doen’t give the naysayers a chance to get going. It is only a small setback for them.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is next. It’s another fantastic performance, though you can tell that Dylan’s joining in on the competition at this point...with each successive song, his own vocals get a bit less melodic and a bit more shouted. When introducing the following song, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” (another one I’ve never been particularly fond of), he gets interrupted by shouts and a bit of slow-clapping. But by now, Dylan seemed to be enjoying the antagonism. You hear angry shouts, and Dylan continues to slowly tune his guitar. Eventually, a supporter yells something inaudible, and half the crowd cheers in response. This only prompts another round of slow-clapping. Dylan, meanwhile, sits back and continues to tune his guitar.

Seriously, how many concerts have you attended where the crowd turned on the performer...and then turned on itself?

I’ve seen it at plenty of Mizzou sporting events, but not at any of the hundreds of concerts I’ve attended.

But at this point the fun is just beginning.

Following “Pillbox Hat”, Dylan and his band are once again taking their time tuning and getting ready for the next song (an unbelievable version of “One Too Many Mornings”) when the slow-clapping and yelling start once again. It grows louder and louder until Dylan starts mumbling something really quiet. Slowly you hear people in the crowd shushing the others so they can hear what he is saying. Everybody stops clapping, and you realize Dylan was just spouting quiet gibberish because he knew it would shut them up, finishing with “(mumble mumble mumble) …if you just wouldn’t clap so loud.” Half the crowd gets the joke, and before the other half can react the band launches into “One Too Many Mornings.” For the people who found his old acoustic songs to be sacred, this might be the biggest outrage. For me, however, it’s one of the best performances of the show. He takes the last line of each verse (“One too many morning/and a thousand miles behind”) and turns it into something of a rock chorus. “And a thousand miles..........BEEE-HIIIIND,” complete with backing vocals. Just a lovely reshaping of a previously lovely song.

But the band is just getting warmed up. If the mumble joke was a sign that Dylan really didn’t care what the crowd thought anymore (I’m sure he did that same thing every night of the tour, but still...), the version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” that followed probably pounded that message home pretty good. One of his bigger insult songs, this version is vicious. “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” In this case, half the crowd is Mr. Jones. But that’s not even the most assaulting part of the song. This performance contains pretty much the best rock organ performance I’ve ever heard. Between Dylan lines, Garth Hudson adds the creepiest, most venomous punch to a song I’ve ever heard, and the combo of organ, Dylan’s piano (this was the only song on which he played piano in this performance), and Dylan’s yelled vocals just pierce your heart. It definitely made an impact on one Mr. Keith Butler. After about 30 seconds of tuning and fiddling about on-stage, the cry comes down. He just couldn’t contain himself any longer.

It’s hard to tell exactly when this became the earth-shattering moment it has now grown to be. For one thing, Keith Butler himself didn’t really understand how big a moment it was until relatively recently.

[T]he man who crystallized those feelings by shouting “Judas” remained anonymous until last year, long after the moment had been written into history. He still might have been unknown had he not been struck with a bout with asthma the day before Live 1966 was released in October.

On that night, Butler, now 52 and living in Toronto, woke from an asthma attack and decided to take a walk to get some fresh air. He ended up in a coffee shop, where he picked up the Toronto Sun from the counter and spotted an article that inspired him to find out more about that night in 1966.

The story, by Associated Press writer Scott Bauer, described the impending release of Live 1966, as well as C.P. Lee's book about the concert, "Like the Night,"** and a rarely seen documentary on Dylan's '66 tour called "Eat the Document."

"So I'm on my own, in the middle of the night, in a coffee shop," Butler recalled. "And at the bottom of the article, it said, 'On "Eat the Document" can be seen some footage of people leaving the theater.

'One of them says, "Any bloody pop group can do this rubbish." ' And I recognized the words -- it was staggering. It was an incredible shock ... from 30 years ago and 3,000 miles away, I was reading what I recognized as my own words."


"Can you imagine what it's like as a 20-year-old kid?" Butler asked. "You were just crushed. I was totally embarrassed when he shouted back. I was there with another guy, and that's when we decided to leave."

While Butler tried to forget about the incident, the exchange sent shockwaves through the world of music and came to symbolize the point at which rock entered a new era, opening the doors to a more artful form of musical expression. ***
What is for sure is that the night’s final song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was anything but “artful.” It was brutal and loud and assaulting...and great. Like a lot of the electric set, it’s not the most pleasant thing to listen to on its face; but then you’re taken in by the energy and urgency of the music...and then you picture yourself in that hostile (in a polite British way) crowd...and then you start to get a rush. And you listen to it repeatedly.

Well, at least I have.

** C.P. Lee’s book, Like the Night, a first hand account of the show, is phenomenal. It’s also quite hard to find. Not surprisingly, I went to eBay to get it. It was worth the work. Here’s an excerpt to entice you. Talking about “Tell Me Momma” and the beginning of the electric set (page 132 of my copy):
It comes crashing in from out of nowhere, taking the listener by surprise and shunting them along on an expressway into darkness. Cold black glass, brackish water that don’t make no tears, fool’s gold teeth, graveyard lips, nine pound hammers and steam drills, the hiss, crash and thud of slow mechanical death. But whichever Mojo Bob’s got ain’t working on the woman and something, she won’t tell him what it is, is tearing up her mind.

Three times Dylan pleads, ‘Tell me momma – What is it?’ and then adds a long suffering – ‘What’s wrong with you this time?’


Musically, Robertson’s guitar work is white hot funk, chunky and spare, reflecting Steve Cropper rather than Mike Bloomfield. This is stripped down adrenaline, demonstrating a complete understanding of the uses of an electric Fender for lead guitar playing. Robbie leads, and the rest of the band, even Dylan, follow. Thirty years later it’s still a frightening opener.

Shock. Confusion. Delight. Awe.

And then – applause. Polite, perhaps a little reserved, but applause never the less.

Thoughts flew around possessed of their own mad craziness. ‘Would he get rid of the band now?’ – ‘Would he play “Like a Rolling Stone”?’ – ‘Would he turn it down?’

After a short moment of tuning Dylan walked over to the microphone and spoke to us for the first time that evening. It would be an understatement to say that people hung on every word.

‘This is called, “I Don’t Believe You;” it used to be like that, and now it goes like this.’

A nervous ripple of laughter spread through the audience and then, before we’d barely had a chance to take in what he meant, a Cuban heeled boot stomped the rhythm onto the floor of the Free Trade Hall and the number got under way.
Kinda puts everything I just wrote to shame, doesn’t it?

*** One last quick aside. Another quote from that Sonicnet article comes from Greil Marcus, author of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.

"It elicit[ed] from Dylan not just an angry response but a response that, in its own way, is pure music," said Greil Marcus, author of "Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes." (Marcus' "Days Between Stations" column appears monthly in Addicted To Noise.) "The way he says, 'I don't believe you,' is the essence of shock and disgust and disbelief, but all contained within a kind of cool, which he then immediately loses."
There’s an expanded snippet from Invisible Republic in this Alex Ross article from The New Yorker:

As if he had been waiting ... a person rises and shouts what he has been silently rehearsing to himself all night. As over and over he has imagined himself doing, he stands up, and stops time. He stops the show: “JUDAS!” Dylan stiffens against the flinch of his own body. "I don't believe you," he says, and the contempt in his voice is absolute. As one listens it turns the echo of the shouter's curse sour, you begin to hear the falseness in it, that loving rehearsal — and yet that same echo has already driven Dylan back — "You're a liar!" he screams hysterically.
When I was growing up, berlin niebuhr always used to say of certain journalists and celebrities (Frank Deford being a prime example), “I wish I could buy them for what they’re worth and sell them for what they think they’re worth.” Well, I guess that means the Frank Deford of rock journalism would be Greil Marcus. Come on, Greil. I know you love to listen to yourself talk and all, but... I don’t hear any “shock and disgust and disbelief” in Dylan’s voice, nor was there anything “hysterical” about “You’re a liar.” Come on, he’d been getting yelled at the whole tour. Aside from “Your mother’s a whore,” what was really going to shock him at that point? He took advantage of the energy and tension of the moment, especially if he really did say “Play f---ing loud,” and turned in a historical performance. Isn’t that enough? Did you have to make it sound like somebody shot at him or threatened to kill him? Did you really have to Hollywood-ize the situation by trying to make it even bigger? Who knows, maybe your account is exactly what happened, but...I doubt it. But I digress.