As pretty pointedly displayed throughout Martin Scorsese‘s recent No Direction Home, the 1966-model Bob Dylan was an American idol at the indisputable peak of his powers as the (insert your own convenient pigeonhole here) Poet/Laureate of a Generation, Crown Prince of the (Thinking Man’s) Hit Parade, or —my personal favorite — Snot-Headed, Venom-Spewing Anti-Rock Star of All Time.
However, if truth be told, the Robert Allen Zimmerman of this period was in fact a man fatally absorbed in his own myth-making, squirming under the pressures of an over-demanding manager, sinking under his obligations to a wholly unsympathetic recording conglomerate and, to top it all, was apparently stuffed to the gills in all manner of dangerously recreational pharmaceutica. Or, as Tony Glover‘s brilliant liner notes inside the Bob Dylan Live 1966 CD summarize, “Bob was not just burning the candle at both ends — he was using a blowtorch on the middle.”
True enough, 1966 was a tough year for rock ‘n’ rollers. Many crashed (Brian Wilson, for one) and several surely burned (John Lennon, most obviously). Dylan, for his part, did manage to injure himself after peeling over the handlebars of his motorcycle that July, but just two months earlier still was in the fiery midst of The Never Ending Tour, Mach One.
To the skeptical (at best), resentful (at worst) audiences of western Europe that spring, he had brought not only his trusty old acoustic and some nice folk tunes from his first few albums, but had defiantly sneaked onto his tour plane as well a loud, raucous, extremely plugged-in rhythm ‘n’ rock combo from the wilds of Toronto (by way of Arkansas) named The Hawks. This was indeed the proverbial boxing match wanting to happen, for insofar as his reverent disciples throughout the British Isles were concerned, Dylan still was the freewheelin’ baby Woody Guthrie of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A’Changin.’ ”
But the times — not to mention the voice, the instrumentation and especially the attitude — had indeed changed since their boy wonderful first toured the Empire (captured for posterity, by the way, in the still-magnificent Don’t Look Back film). And you know, it goes without saying that most people then, as they do now, seem to react to change negatively — some violently so.
Just listen, for example, to the poor old souls inside the Manchester Free Trade Hall 42 exact years ago this month: They may sit politely as Dylan impatiently rushes through his acoustic set (preserved on Live 1966, disc one), but no sooner had The Hawks wheeled their amps onstage and kicked into a defiant “Tell Me, Momma” (with its oh-so-appropriate “I know that you know that I know that you show something is tearing up your mind”) that all holy hell began ripping loose.
Remember: This was the only band on the road that year to come equipped with its very own sound system. Thus freed from having to rely on the puny public address systems of sports arenas and, in the case of England, 100-year-old music halls, Dylan and company were fiendishly bent on producing some of the loudest r’n’r yet to be heard by man or beast.
Also some of the best: There was no finer band operating in the world at the time, with Robbie Robertson‘s “mathematical” (as Dylan so aptly called it at the time) guitar work jabbing and slicing with all the poise and finesse of a rusty soup-can lid to the throat. The inimitable Garth Hudson happily adds just the right touch of carnival madness throughout with his hurly-gurdy organ work, but it’s most certainly Dylan, front and center, who carries the proceedings throughout — and carries them clear on up into the stratosphere at times.
Some insist that after duly carving his statement with such beautiful cacophony, there was honestly nowhere left for the man to go but down and perhaps even out. Others say the man simply paused after that convenient bike wreck to reassess and eventually reinvent himself, as he periodically continues to do to this day. But perhaps this all goes part and parcel with the risks one ultimately faces when aiming too close to the sun, artistically speaking.
Rock ‘n’ roll, for one, just doesn’t seem brave enough to want to shoot this high anymore, and we are all, believe you me, at a great disadvantage and a great loss because of it.
* Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.