On May 17, 1966, Bob Dylan fans in Manchester, England must have been feeling giddy. After all, they had the chance to see one of the world’s greatest songwriters live at one of Europe’s most famous music venues, the Free Trade Hall. How could it possibly disappoint? By the end of Dylan’s performance, though, most of those in attendance felt used and manipulated, and some left in the middle of the show. One famous fan, a Mr. Keith Butler, was even heard shouting “Judas!" as loud as he could, insinuating that Dylan had betrayed his audience. So what happened? How, in just 90 minutes, did a man go from hero to antagonist? And why am I giving a performance that disgusted so much of the audience a 5/5? Don’t worry, friends, we’ll get there. First, some basic history …
By early 1964, Dylan had released two folk masterpieces, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
and The Times They Are A-Changin’
, and he was a household name. His fans wanted more folk classics, but he was growing tired of the genre fast. In August 1964, just months after The Times They Are A-Changin’
hit stores, he released Another Side of Bob Dylan
, which was the farthest from folk an artist could get without completely leaving the genre behind, and then came Bringing it All Back Home
and Highway 61 Revisited
, released just four months apart in 1965. These albums found Dylan leaving folk behind, picking up an electric guitar and writing some of the absolute best rock ‘n’ roll of all time. “Like a Rolling Stone" from Highway 61 Revisited
became a huge hit, showing that six-minute songs can
get radio play, but it confused many of Dylan’s fans. In just two years, he had gone from folk messiah to rock ‘n’ roll rebel, leaving the protest movement behind, it appeared, so he could play loud guitars and sing angry diatribes. In 1966, Dylan released the double LP Blonde on Blonde
and was touring around the world at the time that album was released. This tour was the first chance some fans had to see this new, louder Bob Dylan, so they bought tickets, but they were confused. They were pissed at him, sure, but he’d at least still play his older hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind," right? I mean, he wouldn’t just completely abandon his roots in front of the fans that considered him a legend … right?
It turns out that Dylan didn’t really care who was pissed off. He was going to play his
music, the music he
wanted to play, and if they
didn’t like it, they
could leave. Dylan did give in a little and performed the show in two parts, an acoustic set and an electric set, with a brief intermission separating the two. The first half of the concert, the acoustic half, featured Dylan alone on stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and harmonica. This was the Dylan his fans expected to see, the Dylan they paid to see. The second half of the concert, the electric half, featured Dylan leading a band of rock musicians who called themselves the Hawks. (An early incarnation of the Band, classic rock gods in their own right.) This was the side of Dylan no one in the audience was prepared for. This was the side of Dylan that got booed and yelled at. And this, ladies and gentlemen, was the side of Dylan that wasn’t going to let any measly crowd dictate what he did with his music. Throughout the entire tour, even going back to the shows in late 1965, the crowd was furious with Dylan for this new approach. The booing was so extreme, in fact, that Hawks drummer Levon Helm actually temporarily quit the band due to the stress it all caused. Replacing Helm was Mickey Jones, a guy you might recognize now as a character actor who does TV sitcoms and commercials, but that’s fairly irrelevant here. The booing didn’t make Dylan want to quit, though. It made him upset, sure, but he quickly figured out that he couldn’t let anything stand in his way.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After years of being a famous bootleg (MOJO once called it “the most famous bootleg album of all time"), the Free Trade Hall performance was released by Columbia in 1998 as the 2-CD set Live 1966
. The music here, both the acoustic and electric discs, is phenomenal and it shows Dylan at his creative peak. This is certainly one of the best live albums of all time, right up there with such classics as the Who’s Live at Leeds
, Neil Young’s MTV Unplugged
and Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin
, and no matter how many times you listen to it, the music never gets old. Now, on to the music …
Disc 1 finds Dylan wasting no time with banter, like the joking he was known for earlier in his live career, and begins immediately with "She Belongs to Me", a highlight from Bringing it All Back Home
. If the show’s first half was all acoustic to please fans of Dylan’s folk side, which it pretty much was, it might seem strange that Dylan opened things with a stripped-down version of one of his electric songs instead of simply playing a song that was already just acoustic like, say, “Blowin’ in the Wind" or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right." But that’s Dylan for you. He might, on some rare occasion, give in just a bit and do something someone else wants him to do, but he always balances things out and ends up playing by his own rules. In fact, Dylan plays nothing but stripped-down versions of songs from his electric era for the entire acoustic set, proving he wasn’t about to bend over backwards to please anyone.
Enough about the song selection, though. I need to tell you about how good the damn songs are, right? Well, they’re outstanding. All of them. Dylan’s guitar work is extra quick and to the point, and his vocal delivery is vintage Dylan, complete with the nasal, stretched-out syllables. These aren’t complaints, though. The man still sounds incredible. Versions of “Visions of Johanna" and “Just Like a Woman," both from Blonde on Blonde
, are infinitely superior to their studio counterparts, especially “Just Like a Woman," which is slowed down and made to sound far less like a pop song and more like a haunting ballad. And the nine-minute version of “Mr. Tambourine Man," with its extended harmonica solos, is a classic take on a classic track and stands as Disc 1’s finest moment. That’s only the acoustic set, though, the calm before the storm. The real
thrills begin right after the intermission …
After the intermission, Dylan didn’t do what anyone in the crowd that night expected or even wanted. He marched out there with the Hawks, let his electric guitar hang from his shoulders and went on to tear the damn place down. The band opened the second half of the show with “Tell Me, Momma," a raw, in-your-face rocker that was never officially released on a Dylan album. After slowly building momentum, the track explodes with Dylan practically screaming the words and it’s one of the sets many highlight. The crowd claps at the end, but it is certainly some of the most uncomfortable applause you’ll ever here. It’s as if they are thinking, “Well, maybe he’s done with those silly loud instruments now!" But Dylan wasn’t done. After an equally loud version of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," the crowd had already grown tired of the sound and starts to clap in unison, trying to throw Dylan off. But he moves on and delivers an incredible version of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," an old folk standard he sang on his eponymous debut. Not only is Dylan pissing people off by playing loud rock ‘n’ roll, he’s playing songs those people care about and completely tearing them apart! You have to love that. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" makes another appearance in Dylan’s career, as one of the songs he sings during the Band’s The Last Waltz
concert, but it’s this version that stands out as the finest he ever played.
Another highlight of Live 1966
is the end of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," a track from Blonde on Blonde
. Once Dylan is finished with the song, he rants into his microphone, saying something about the audience. He sounds too messed up on whatever pills he was taking at the time to make much sense, but the crowd takes it as some sort of victory and cheers loudly, maybe thinking that the rock ‘n’ roll would stop. The night was far from over, though, and Dylan gets right back to business with a terrific take on “One Too Many Mornings," a song from The Times They Are A-Changin’
. The original was quiet and peaceful, but this version is a brand new arrangement that even features backing vocals from the band. Following “One Too Many Mornings" is “Ballad of a Thin Man," a song Dylan actually wrote partly about his transformation from acoustic instruments to electric instruments. “Something’s happening," he sings, his delivery so nasty you can practically hear the sneer that must have been spread across his face. “But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?" It’s another highlight of a disc full of highlights, but nothing, and I mean nothing, comes close to the set’s finale.
The version of “Like a Rolling Stone" recorded that night actually begins with the very end of “Ballad of a Thin Man," when the fan I already mentioned hollers “Judas!" at the top of his lungs. The crowd finds it funny and others even join in, wanting to hear at least one folk tune before the night ends. And then, unbelievably, Dylan responds. After all of the blood, sweat and tears that come with touring the globe, after all the energy he’s spent, the only responses he receives night after night are insults and loud booing. And after taking it for all that time, after reading all the articles about how he’s sold out and how he’s turned his back on his fans, Dylan responds to all of it with two lines ...
I don’t believe you!
You’re a liar!
… And then, turning to Jones and the rest of the band, he delivers one more command …
… and that’s exactly what the band does. In interviews, Jones has said he pounded his kit to kick off “Like a Rolling Stone" as loud as he had in his entire life, and the rest of the band plays with just as much energy, especially Dylan, who sounds like he’s in a different place during the entire track. This is rock ‘n’ roll, friends, top-notch, unstoppable rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, I can say without even thinking twice that this is the finest rock ‘n’ roll I’ve ever
heard. Better than Keith Moon and Pete Townshend when the Who was at its peak, better than the Stooges when Iggy was on fire and, yes, better than anything
the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin ever
did. And I’m a fan, a huge fan, of all of those bands.
I’ve always believed serious music fans treat their favorite recordings like a warrior treats his weapon; no matter what else happens, when its time to go to war, the fan knows those songs will be there to help guide them. And for me, guiding me as I take on whatever might get in my way will be this version of “Like a Rolling Stone," the best recording of the best song by the best songwriter of all time. And this isn’t me going fanboy on you all. I dig Dylan, sure, but I would never say the man was perfect or that he could do no wrong. It's just that, on this particular night, the man was as close to perfect as a musician can get and he could do no wrong. And that's not hyperbole, that's the truth.