50 Years Ago This Week – Dylan Plugs In
On July 25th at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, folk hero Bob Dylan, backed by a band that included Paul Butterfield and Al Kooper, plugged in, played three loud rock songs, and was essentially booed off the stage. (Many people booed. He left fifteen minutes into a scheduled one hour set. We can argue about the semantics some another time.) Pete Seeger was upset. Many people were upset. Very, Very, Upset. Into the uneasy darkness Peter Yarrow took to the microphone and pleaded for “Bobby” to come back. An obviously unsettled Dylan returned, and, solo on acoustic guitar, played two more songs: the very much not a folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and, if his point was not clear enough, followed that with a most awesome and haunting rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” And then he was gone.
Dylan going electric was one of the most important moments in the history of Rock and Roll. Within five months and four days in 1965, Dylan released two albums that would change the world, Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. (The exalted double album Blonde on Blonde would follow in 1966.) With these albums, Dylan showed that rock music could matter, and could have meaning, in ways that were never previously thought possible. From there, doors flew open. As the old story goes: the Beatles gave Dylan the courage to go electric, Dylan inspired the Beatles to have something to say, and soon enough, “having something to say” was the coin of the realm, the measure of the value of an artist.
All of this was of enormous consequence for the New Hollywood as well. The participants in the New Hollywood, many of them raised on rock music, took it very seriously, and saw it as an integral part of their own work, and of their own lives. “The music was always very close to me,” Martin Scorsese explained, “I am almost reverent to it.” And that admiration went both ways: the ambitious rockers of the 1960s were part of the generation that saw film – especially the European New Wave cinemas that informed the New Hollywood – as the art form that spoke directly to their own sensibilities and concerns. All this, of course, led to rich collaborations and cross-fertilizations between the two communities.
In the heat of the moment, however, Dylan’s gambit was enormously controversial. The folk music community saw, bitterly and vehemently, nothing but a crass and fundamental betrayal of everything they believed in. (For The Bob’s riposte, see “Positively Fourth Street.”) But they were only half right. Dylan was rejecting the concept of overt political protest (his entire 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was one long testament to that renunciation, for anyone who cared to listen). But it was a reinterpretation, not a rejection, of the meaning of politics, towards something closer to what the feminist movement would soon insist upon: “the personal as political.” And again, the movies were not far behind: Dylan was anticipating the inward turn that would be embraced by the New Hollywood, which, on screen, shied away from plot-driven stories that reached tidy conclusions, emphasizing instead introspective, character-driven narratives that delved into elusive personal and interpersonal challenges and interrogations.
With the passage of time, it is easy to forget the passion of that pitched battle over electric music, or the high stakes that each side perceived were in play. One month after the Newport tumult, Dylan faced “a rude and immature audience” at his concert in Forest Hills, according to the New York Times (in a story by Robert Shelton, an early Dylan advocate). Showered with boos from a hostile audience and demands for “the old Dylan,” the singer kept his cool, and stuck with the new stuff.
“I had a perspective on the booing,” Dylan explained years later, “because, you gotta realize, you can kill somebody with kindness, too.” But that sense of perspective did not always come easily. At the legendary “Royal Albert Hall concert” (actually a concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, May 17, 1966), one audience member screamed out “Judas!” – to some applause – and he meant it. “I don’t believe you” Dylan responded, adding, “you’re a lair,” before turning around, giving some instructions to The Band, and letting his music do the talking—ripping into a ferocious version of “Like A Rolling Stone.” The entire incident was captured on film, and parts of it can be seen in the outstanding and essential Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.
Dylan Tells the Newport Crowd "It's All Over" (Is that sweat, or tears?)
Responding to "Judas": Dylan Instructs The Band to Make Their Intentions Clear