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The music was worth bootlegging. It was the finest of Dylan's career. Dylan had performed solo on his British tour of 1965, the subject of -- or at least the setting for -- D. A. Pennebaker's cinema verité-style portrait of Dylan, Don't Look Back. One of my favorite scenes from Pennebaker's movie shows a British journalist dictating his review of a Dylan concert into a pay phone and concluding with what he clearly thinks is a poetic flourish of his own: "'The times, they are a-changing,' sings Dylan. They are, when a poet and not a pop singer fills a hall."
In 1966 Dylan may still have fancied himself a poet, but he was by then also unambiguously a rock-and-roller, thanks in no small measure to the company he had chosen to keep. These were musicians with an encyclopedic repertoire of riffs, veterans of countless one-nighters backing singers far less "poetic" than Dylan. They roughed him up, and he gave back as good as he got, sounding as though he might sing himself hoarse. On some of Dylan's earlier "folk" songs on Live 1966, such as "One Too Many Mornings" and "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," his bandmates frequently sound two notes away from Chuck Berry's "Memphis" or Tommy Tucker's "Hi-Heel Sneakers," and this is all to the good. Playing the role of barroom rocker and functioning as one musician among six discouraged Dylan from indulging in the sort of self-conscious preening he did far too much of in his opening solo set, in which the main point of interest (for me, anyway) is his atmospheric and doggedly idiosyncratic harmonica. He was at his most playful on "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," essentially a talking blues whose leering non sequiturs, delivered over a shuffle beat, freed him from the requirements of narrative, and also from his usual pretensions to larger social significance.
Dylan was smart enough to realize that the verbal complexity of his lyrics was best offset by a comparable sonic density, which only a rock-and-roll band could provide. But not all the credit for the success of this music as music belongs to his sidemen. As the Band, these same men demonstrated the limits of utilitarian musicianship. The brand of roots-rock Americana they introduced on Music From Big Pink amounted to an artistic vision, but as singers and even as instrumental soloists they lacked personality -- a quality Dylan always had in abundance, whatever one thought of it. On Live 1966 his overweening pride for once becomes a virtue: this is a young man meeting rock-and-roll head on, confident that rock-and-roll stands to gain from the encounter. "It used t' be like that, and now it goes like this," he says in introducing a revved-up version of "I Don't Believe You." He might just as well have been talking about rock-and-roll, which had never before been so raw and unregimented.
DYLAN was a new breed of pop star. Elvis Presley loved show business, and so did the Beatles -- though their affection was for British music hall and The Goon Show, not Las Vegas or fifties network variety shows. Dylan, who was as much a product of 1960s Greenwich Village as of his native Hibbing, Minnesota, saw rock-and-roll less as an extension of show business than as a form of absurdist theater. On Live 1966 the British folkies dramatize their displeasure by stomping their feet between songs. When someone yells "Judas!," Dylan, in his best halting James Dean, retorts "I don't believe you," and then "You're a liar," before telling his sidemen (off-mike but clearly audible, and clearly meant to be overheard) to "play fuckin' loud."
To me, what is remarkable about this exchange is that Dylan's speaking voice sounds like someone else's -- and might have been someone else's, according to Dylanologists. This ambiguity is one of the reasons the former Robert Zimmerman has been an enigma to even his most obsessive fans. It's been said over and over that Dylan is the guy who made it okay for any songwriter to sing his own songs, no matter how unlovely or technically restricted his voice might be. This is true as far as it goes, but the irony is that Dylan himself has never been a casual singer; he has never even settled on one voice. Early on, a writer observed that Dylan talked like Marlon Brando "imitating [a] Southern farmhand." This also describes his early singing style. On going electric he became, in the words of another writer, "a Rolling Stone singing Immanuel Kant." On Time Out of Mind, as on most of his recent albums, he frequently sounds like Gabby Hayes doing Bob Dylan for the amusement of the other cowpokes around the campfire. In this respect John Lennon was Dylan's exact opposite: no matter how often he attempted to reinvent himself, through transcendental meditation or primal-scream therapy or political consciousness-raising, Lennon was always identifiably himself.
Singing was for Lennon a form of self-revelation; for Dylan it has always been an act of self-concealment, which apparently doesn't end when the show does. In Eat the Document, a film of Dylan's 1966 European tour made for American television but rejected (it was shown last year at the Museum of Television & Radio, in New York), an interviewer who has had enough of Dylan's put-ons and putdowns asks him, "Don't you ever come offstage? Are you ever yourself at any time?" Dylan has no answer for the interviewer -- at least not that we hear.
To many of Dylan's most ardent fans his profanity at the Manchester concert (assuming that he was the one who instructed the musicians to crank up the volume and not Robbie Robertson, as many people, including me, believe) is the stuff of high drama -- the beginning of an era in pop music when performers would, just like real artists, refuse to let themselves be defined by their audiences. Those fans hear the version of "Like a Rolling Stone" that ends Live 1966 as an act of brave retaliation: in the words of Corey Greenberg, reviewing Live 1966 in Stereo Review, what follows the instruction to Dylan's sidemen to turn up their amps is "either Lee Harvey Oswald's bolt-action rifle cracking across Dealey Plaza or drummer Mickey Jones's apocalyptic rim shot that kicks off the loudest, meanest, most awe-inspiring version of 'Like a Rolling Stone' Dylan or anyone else has ever laid down."
The allusion to Oswald is tasteless, the hyperbole may be adolescent, and anyone who thinks Dylan or Robertson needed to be provoked to utter a swearword hasn't spent much time around young musicians. Reading Greenberg underscores how very 1960s this music, and the controversy that once surrounded it, now seems.
THE current vogue for everything pertaining to the Second World War -- from swing dancing to Saving Private Ryan to Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation -- has, in addition to mythologizing our dying parents, been interpreted as a rebuke to a generation that supposedly took democracy for granted and chose in large numbers to protest a war rather than fight in it. But democracy as we define it today is as much the result of battles fought in America's classrooms and streets in the 1960s as of battles fought overseas twenty years earlier. The sixteen House Judiciary Committee Democrats who voted as a bloc against impeaching Bill Clinton included three women, five African-Americans, and one openly gay man -- a representation that would have been unthinkable at the time of Iwo Jima or Normandy.
Perhaps none of this has much to do with Dylan, yet it goes a long way toward explaining why his music and that of others in the 1960s holds greater than nostalgic fascination for those of us who grew up with it (and in some ways long ago outgrew it). Whatever was at issue in the music for its original fans remains at issue, however irrelevant Dylan himself has become.
Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He recently received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for "The Man From Heaven," which appeared in the June, 1997, Atlantic.
Illustration by Janet Woolley
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Napoleon in Rags; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 108 - 117.