What Really Happened When Bob Dylan ‘Went Electric’?

How Does It Feel

[The following is the Prologue to my new book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]

Watching footage of Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he “went electric,” the viewer is immediately struck, as Dylan and his band begin their set with “Maggie’s Farm,” by the insistence, intensity, and sheer volume of the repetitive three-note bass line. This pounding heartbeat, conspiring with the primal, cutting snarl of Mike Bloomfield’s lead guitar, must have been jolting for an audience expecting an acoustic folksinger. The sound is piercing and anxiety producing, urgent and fierce. Although Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary claims that “the volume of the blues band was kind of wild, you couldn’t get the words too clearly,”[i] judging from the recording, while “wild” is an accurate description of the volume, the words were perfectly audible, an observation reinforced by the fact that Paul Rothchild, who would go on to produce the Doors, was engineering the sound.

However, although the folk audience might have been startled by the sheer magnitude of the noise coming from their beloved troubadour, it could not have been mere loudness that produced such a negative reaction from the crowd, as both the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Chambers Brothers had played loud electric sets earlier in the day, which had both been well-received.[ii] While many in the audience were probably surprised by Dylan’s thwarting of their expectations (despite the fact that Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home about four months previously and “Like a Rolling Stone” a week before), contrary to popular belief, it does not seem to be the bare fact of Dylan playing loud rock and roll that caused the audience to start booing.[iii]

Paying careful attention to the performance, as the band begins playing “Maggie’s Farm,” there is excited talking in the crowd, neither ecstatic nor critical, a clamor of expectant voices attempting to determine the value of this new music, shouting to be heard over the strident rhythm section and guitar. Dylan is visibly a bit nervous, but the first verse sounds fine, if slightly uncertain, his powerful voice cutting through the rhythmic potency of the band.[iv] This initial success appears to give Dylan courage, and he starts to smile as the song goes to the five at the end of the first verse on the word “bored,” the dominant chord that universally releases tension in the blues, allowing the song to resolve back to the one, the tonic or root chord. But the bass, which has been thunderously dominating the feel of the band, and rather effectively up to this point, does not go to the five, and thus the tension is not released.[v]

This deviation from the recorded version of the song on Bringing It All Back Home does not seem premeditated as the musicians appear confused for a brief moment, Dylan deliberately finishing the phrase, and then looking uncomfortably over at Bloomfield as two unseen men in the audience start to boo about a second after the singer steps back from the microphone. Another second later, Dylan looks down, apparently toward the booing men, with a half-wounded, half-disdainful expression as others join in the booing, the singer seeming to realize that he has lost his audience for this first live performance with a band (at least since high school).[vi] Although Dylan’s guitar is barely audible, and his left hand is not visible during this critical moment of the first verse, the bass refuses to move to the five again at the end of the second verse, while Dylan’s hand moves to what appears to be the A chord, the five for the key of D in which the song is played, which indicates that Dylan was performing the song as it was originally conceived, but that the sheer volume of the bass overruled his guitar.

While most commentators have implicitly assumed that Dylan meant the band to stay on the root chord as a planned assault on the audience, it seems far more likely, based on the subtle fluctuations in the band’s playing, as well as on the gestural and facial cues from Dylan and Bloomfield, that the bass player simply did not know the changes of the song very well, which merely demonstrates how little rehearsal had gone into the performance. As organ player Al Kooper charitably, though somewhat inaccurately, expressed it: “We didn’t especially play that good; the beat got turned around.”[vii] Similarly, musician Geoff Muldaur has said that “I don’t believe people were booing because the music was revolutionary. . . . It was just that Dylan wasn’t very good at it. He had no idea how to play the electric guitar, and he had very second-rate musicians with him, and they hadn’t rehearsed enough. It just didn’t work. The musicians didn’t play good. There’s no doubt in my mind, people were booing because it stank.”[viii] While many interpreters have differed from this assessment, based on the footage, it seems undeniable, though it also seems odd that, to my knowledge, it has never been mentioned in print that the specific musical problem was neither primarily the beat getting turned around nor Dylan’s electric guitar-playing, but the bass player missing a change.

One suspects that the fact that the bass player, Jerome Arnold, was one of two African Americans performing with Dylan may have had something to do with this collective amnesia, the product of a condescending proto-political correctness that may have been justified at the time, but that is perhaps unnecessary in the post-Obama era, especially when so many of our greatest musicians are black. However, the fact remains that, although the booing seems to have begun as a reaction to the music’s execution, it soon took on an entirely different significance, perhaps even by the end of that first song, but certainly by the time other audiences followed suit, culminating in the Manchester Free Trade Hall concert in 1966 when an audience member yelled “Judas!” before Dylan and the Hawks (later the Band) erupted into a volcanic performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.” In both concerts, bookending what is probably the most inspired and volatile ten months of Dylan’s performing career, high drama was played out on the stage of popular culture, requiring nearly as much conceit and suspension of disbelief as the theater for its effectiveness.[ix]

The unvarnished truth about Dylan’s performance at Newport in 1965 is that the young singer was accustomed to versatile session players and the ability to do multiple takes of songs in the studio, while this rhythm section, borrowed along with Bloomfield from the Butterfield Blues Band, was only prepared to play straight blues. But this was the leader of the band’s fault, not the rhythm section’s. Having worked with very few groups at that point, Dylan chose his musicians naively, thinking that they would be able to do his songs justice with very little rehearsal when this was just not the case. Playing alone, Dylan’s confidence in his performance was unshakable because he had the exceptional capacity to rise to any occasion. But playing with a band suddenly made it necessary for him to consider the other musicians, even just enough to elicit a good performance from them. Thus, it seems that the simple fact, generally overlooked, is that members of the audience started booing not primarily because they felt betrayed by Dylan’s embrace of rock and roll, but because Dylan was not yet a proficient band leader, so the bass player missed a change, which broke the momentum and made the performance feel wrong in a way that would have been difficult to define in the moment.

The myth that has grown up around this concert is that it was the symbolic enactment of an ideological schism between the folk purists and those favorably inclined toward rock and roll,[x] and it ultimately did come to symbolize this very thing for, according to folksinger Oscar Brand: “To the old left, Dylan was the second coming. . . . He was a kind of link to their own lost youth that validated them and gave them hope for their own resurgence.” However, if Dylan’s betrayal of this hopeful expectation was the source of the old guard’s disapproval, it does not seem to have been the primary concern for the larger audience. As singer, novelist, and close Dylan friend Richard Farina insisted:

We all grew up with . . . radio music—it was not traditional music. . . . Only when popular music was in its very worst period, when nothing was happening there, did we turn to folk music. [Rock and roll] was part of everybody’s music when they were growing up in America. It was part of high school in America. The first person that Dylan and I ever talked about when we hung out together was Buddy Holly.[xi]

Given their generation’s deep affection for rock and roll, with the benefit of recording technology and a careful ear, one gets the distinct impression that the myth might have been rather different had Dylan and his band sounded as tight as they did on his latest record.

However, as was almost always the case, Dylan managed to transform this near disaster into a triumph, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when he was called back out to perform two acoustic songs. After singing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” he performed a weary, frustrated “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that perfectly encapsulated the transitional quality of that moment, the performance of the death and rebirth of American popular music from one genre into another, from one way of being into another. Having already recorded the song that Rolling Stone magazine would appropriately nominate the “greatest song of all time,”[xii] “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan had not quite mastered live rock and roll. However, this was the moment when the reigning “King of Folk Music”[xiii] declared unequivocally that he was no longer exclusively, or even primarily, a folk musician.

Speaking in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home about that first electric performance at Newport, Dylan recalls:

I was thinkin’ that someone was shouting, ‘Are you with us? Are you with us?’ And, uh, you know, I don’t know, what’s that supposed to mean? I had no idea why they were booing. I don’t think anybody was there having a negative response to those songs, though. Whatever it was about wasn’t about anything that they were hearing.[xiv]

However, knowing Dylan’s propensity for misdirection, and seeing the subtle signs in the performance footage, it seems likely that Dylan convinced himself in retrospect that the booing “wasn’t about anything that they were hearing,” perhaps choosing to believe, or even just claiming to believe the myth that his milieu had spontaneously created to cover up the fact that the man they had elected their prophet was all too human. Whatever Dylan’s intention, though, his audience and his generation apparently needed him to succeed, so rather than believe that Dylan could make a mistake as basic as not having sufficiently rehearsed, most of those involved seem to concur that Dylan made intentionally alienating music to declare his independence from the folk movement. While this supposition appears true to a limited extent, Dylan almost certainly did not intend for the bass player to miss the chord change, which sparked the booing and stalled the momentum of the performance.[xv]

Nevertheless, as Dylan’s friend Paul Nelson observed a decade later: “In the mid-Sixties Dylan’s talent evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action. Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did they’d sift through the remains, looking for significance. The scary part is they’d find it.” Although one might interpret this “hunger for a sign” in a less sinister light than Nelson does, it seems clear that the audience so intensely wanted Dylan to succeed that, by collectively creating a narrative near the factual truth, but not quite identical with it, they allowed Dylan to carry on with his trajectory toward greatness.

And this disjunction between the way the situation actually transpired and the belief of the collective could conceivably be taken as proof that everyone was participating in a mass delusion, as from a reductionist perspective, the concert was just a lot of people making a lot of noise and getting worked up about it. However, from a mythically and narratologically informed perspective, the very fact that the audience collectively and unconsciously saved Dylan from embarrassment, transmuting what was simply a bad performance into an epochal rupture, can be taken as evidence that Dylan really was, in some sense, destined for great things. The myth of this moment is far more significant than the way the music actually sounded whereas, by contrast, both the music and the event were equally significant at the “Judas” concert the following year, Dylan by then having drastically improved his approach to live rock and roll, not least by hiring one of his generation’s greatest bands, but also by forging a performative mode markedly different than his acoustic folk persona.[xvi]

Legend has it that Pete Seeger, the embodiment of the old guard of folk music at that moment, was threatening to cut the cables with an axe while Dylan was playing with the band at Newport. Seeger and the rest of the folk community ultimately acquiesced to Dylan’s revolution, though not without a great deal of resistance, a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, if Seeger initially played the role of disapproving father, singer Maria Muldaur played the role of supportive sister. At a party later that night, Muldaur recalls seeing Dylan sitting by himself “looking really weird,” so encouraged by Richard Farina, as she recalls: “I go over by myself, and I say, ‘Hey, Bob, how you doing?’ His legs were wiggling like they always did, and he was just brooding in the corner with his legs wiggling. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Would you like to dance?’ And he looked up at me, and he said, ‘I would dance with you, Maria, but my hands are on fire.’ . . . Bob was looking like he was really down after his whole experience with that band. He didn’t look like a guy who thought he had very much to celebrate.”[xvii] As Muldaur told Scorsese, Dylan’s utterance may have been “cryptic,” but she “kinda knew exactly what he meant.” Muldaur apparently understood that Dylan’s hands were burning with an archetypal, Promethean flame, blazing with the magnitude of what he had just done, performing the necessary murder of the old order in an ugly, flawed, but ultimately effective—and era-defining—fifteen minutes of visceral intensity and sheer volume.

As Al Kooper, in his drolly humorous way, describes Dylan’s next show a month after the Newport performance:

When we played Forest Hills, “Like a Rolling Stone” was number one. And so when we played “Like a Rolling Stone,” they stopped booing and sang along. And then when we finished they started booing again. I thought that was great. I enjoyed that. But at the party after the show, Bob came runnin’ up to us and gave us big hugs. He said, “That was fabulous! It was great, it was like a carnival, it was fantastic.” He really enjoyed the show.

Based on Kooper’s observations, it seems clear that Dylan understood on a profound level that the booing was not really about him, that he was a catalyst for something profound occurring in his culture. In fact, Dylan seems at least temporarily to have attained a state approaching egoless consciousness such that he enjoyed the crowd booing him, at least for a time, not because he had a pathological need to be hated, but because he knew that he was playing a central role in the cultural drama. As Dylan recalls: “I had a perspective on the booing because you gotta realize you can kill somebody with kindness, too,” which seems to indicate that Dylan did perhaps, on some level, see himself as something like a messianic figure despite his frequent protestations to the contrary, not primarily for the glory, but because he knew that he could fulfill that vital cultural function.[xviii]

In fact, this kind of deep humility and sense of service to the greater good is precisely how one might expect a messiah to conceive his role. Dylan, in his “perspective” on the resistance leveled against him, was putting into action the French proverb, “to understand all is to forgive all,” for seemingly more than anyone else, he understood that the audiences were not booing because of who he was as a private individual, but because he was playing a necessary transformative role in the development of historical process.[xix] And having rejected folk music, he was not about to settle into his role as “Rock and Roll King”[xx] any more than he would accept the mantle of “Messiah.”[xxi] Dylan, always refusing to be pinned down, rejected the labels “folk rock” and “rock and roll” for his new style, preferring to call it “vision music,”[xxii] which seems as accurate a description as any. As ever, Dylan’s impulse was to transcend genre, identity, and even temporality to perform the “unceasing creation”[xxiii] characteristic of humanity’s greatest achievements, including the best of rock and roll.

[i] No Direction Home, Dir. Martin Scorsese (Paramount Pictures, 2005).

[ii] David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez

Farina, and Richard Farina (New York: North Point Press, 2001) 260.

[iii] Hajdu 259-260. Several other theories have been posited to explain why the crowd was booing, including that the sound quality was poor (which does not appear to be the case based on the footage), that the set was too short (which is temporally impossible as the booing started near the beginning of the first song), and that the crowd was angry at Peter Yarrow for trying to cut Dylan’s set short (again temporally impossible). Some have even claimed that there was no booing, which is simply not true (Greil Marcus, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, New York: PublicAffairs, 2005, 155-156).

[iv] Benjamin Hedin, ed. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader (New York: Norton, 2004) 42. Hedin 42.

[v] Whereas the Newport 1965 version of “Maggie’s Farm” is played in the key of D, the studio recording of the song is played in the key of G. However, this transposition would not have affected the band’s ability to play the song with the same chord changes relative to the original key. On the record, the band plays an E minor transitional chord, a minor sixth for the key of G, before moving to the D, the fifth, but the minor sixth is merely a tonal shading inessential to the overall trajectory of the song, while the movement from the tonic to the dominant comprises the main action of the composition, and of the blues in general.

[vi] Marcus 156.

[vii] Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: an unruly history (New York: Harmony Books, 1995) 105.

[viii] Hajdu 260.

[ix] Marcus 159.

[x] Hedin 40.

[xi] Hajdu 210, 227.

[xii] “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” Rolling Stone online (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407).

[xiii] Daniel Mark Epstein, The Ballad of Bob Dylan (New York: Harper, 2011) 110-111.

[xiv] Scorsese.

[xv] Daniel Mark Epstein notes that Dylan’s memoir “never allows truth to get in the way of a good story, or history to interfere with the revelation of the most significant truths” (Epstein 81).

[xvi] Marcus 154-55.

[xvii] Hajdu 262-63.

[xviii] Scorsese

[xix] Or, in the slightly more prosaic phrasing of a friend from his days in Minneapolis: “he didn’t give a shit.” (Heylin 46).

[xx] Hajdu 276.

[xxi] Chronicles 124.

[xxii] Hajdu 281.

[xxiii] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005) 19.

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One response to “What Really Happened When Bob Dylan ‘Went Electric’?

  1. Pingback: Features /// The Rock and Roll Philospher of Lockeland Springs | Lockeland Springsteen

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