Ever heard a band so loud that it snapped your head back and made you wonder if your ears were bleeding? Then you know how the audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival felt when Bob Dylan hung a Fender Stratocaster around his neck, plugged in, nodded to the five musicians backing him and pulverized the expectations of those who had come to hear him strum an acoustic guitar and puff on a harmonica.
That Newport festival audience contained so many warring allegiances and agendas that, till now, it has been impossible to say what really happened that night. Fans and journalists who hated Dylan’s new sound insisted that the audience was outraged, whereas those who wanted more Bobby — more amp, more volume, less hammered dulcimer and pennywhistle — pronounced the crowd ecstatic.
The popular version of the story is that when the first few bars of Dylan’s electrified music gushed out of the amplifiers, it horrified the crowd — especially Pete Seeger, “the gentle giant of the folk scene,” who tried to cut the sound cables with an axe. The real story is a lot better than that and, if not as black-and-white as the popular one, all the more resonant for being recounted here by one of the best music journalists around. Elijah Wald is the author of a dozen earlier books on subjects including the blues, rap, the Beatles and the narcocorrido, that Mexican song type that explores and often glorifies drug smuggling. In “Dylan Goes Electric!” Wald carefully lays out the path to Newport, and his readers will itch with yearning as they wait to find out what really happened that night.
And what really happened is made even murkier by the fact that the protagonist is Bob Dylan. He was only 24 years old in 1965, but he’d already been through his fair share of controversy. He actually began as a rocker: The text next to his high school yearbook photo said his goal was to join Little Richard’s band, but terms used to describe the speed with which Dylan absorbed new sounds and changed personas during his formative years include “a sponge,” “like blotting paper” and “a chameleon.” Wald notes that “he was exploding with ideas and needed opportunities to try them out.”
Dylan had already moved away from traditional folk music to write and perform his own material, notably “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” songs that had transcended the entertainment world and become anthems of the antiwar and civil rights movements. What next for the young performer? The audience at Newport was about to find out.
But like all festival performers, Dylan is limited to just three songs. The backing musicians, notably guitarist Mike Bloomfield and other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, test their instruments as Dylan strums a few chords on that Stratocaster, then steps up to the mike and sings, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” As master of ceremonies Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) fusses with the sound chords and amplifiers, the band members seem to go off in different directions; they had rehearsed with Dylan only once, and that had not gone well.
Then the first song is done, and as Wald notes, “with the last notes of ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ we leave the realm of history and enter the realm of myth.” A passable version of “Like a Rolling Stone” follows, then “Phantom Engineer,” which was to be reshaped later and recorded as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Halfway through the first verse, the song falls apart: Dylan’s tricky measures trip up the under-rehearsed musicians, guitarist Bloomfield doesn’t follow the chord progression, the bass player seems completely lost. Bloomfield especially seems bent on provoking the audience; one observer remembers that “he had his guitar turned up as loud as he could possibly turn it up, and he was playing as many notes as he could possibly play.”
The audience screams and boos as Dylan unplugs and the musicians leave the stage. Peter Yarrow tries to placate them by calling out, “Bobby, could you do another song, please?,” and here is where the myth goes into high gear. Offstage, someone addresses Pete Seeger, saying “Leave that one alone, Pete.” At roughly the same time, Yarrow says, “He’s gonna get his axe.” It’s clear that the emcee is using musicians’ slang to explain that Dylan is going after another guitar, but the misunderstanding is on its way to becoming legend.
This brief account of that night omits a hundred juicy details that paint an unforgettable picture of a performer trying to change and give his audience something that they want, even if they don’t seem to know it yet. You’ll find those details and more in this splendid book. As told by Wald, the story of Dylan at Newport is not so much about music as it is about stories themselves, how they mesmerize even as they bumble along and don’t always end cleanly. The truth is often messy. And usually that messiness makes for a better story.
David Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
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by Elijah Wald
Dey St. 354 pp. $26.99