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When Dylan Went Electric: My First Rock Concert, 45 Years Ago This Week | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

When Dylan Went Electric: My First Rock Concert, 45 Years Ago This Week

Once they were giants, now dinosaurs? It's been quite a month for the Big Three rock heroes of the 1960s.

The latest installment in Bob Dylan's neverending bootleg series emerged, unleashing dozens of acoustic demo recordings from the early part of that decade. Then Keith Richards's long-awaited memoir appeared—to prominent and favorable reviews, no less—complete with a Members Only critique of partner Mick Jagger. Now, today, with little warning, the "other" Apple has finally opened The Beatles catalog at iTunes, as fans twist and shout.

All of this only serves to remind me of a personal anniversary: Forty-five years ago this week, I attended my first rock concert. Many others naturally followed, from Blind Faith to Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Clash, The Wailers, U2, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and the Swell Season, many while I served as an editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. But that first concert remains vivid, and historic, as it was one stop on what many consider the most significant (and craziest) tour ever—Bob Dylan's first full road trip after going electric.

In October '65, still in high school, I was a huge Dylan fan—I can honestly say that it was his "protest" phase that made me turn left. He had only recently picked up the electric guitar at Newport and hit the top with "Like a Rolling Stone." I took a really bold step: ordering a pair of tickets for a Dylan show on November 20 at Kleinhan's Music Hall in Buffalo. I still don't know how I managed to get tickets from my local music shop, but even more amazing: this would be my first rock concert.

That wasn't anything to be ashamed of back then. Only a few kids I knew had ever been to shows, usually girls who drove up to Toronto for the Beach Boys. Few bands came to Buffalo, only twenty miles away but another world, with a thick knot of highways and byways to navigate and a then-huge downtown. And until senior year, I didn't have a license that would allow me to drive after dark. Now I was all set, if I dared make the trek to Buffalo.

I didn't know what to expect from the concert. This was long before the "rock press" appeared, wire service tour reports were virtually unheard of, and the net, of course, did not exist. No sets lists posted online. All I'd heard was that the show opened acoustic and then went electric—and was causing disturbances everywhere. No idea who was in the backing band.

A Buffalo paper (I still have the clipping) ran a three-paragraph story, with the last two amounting to this: "He has performed at the Lincoln Center and Town Hall, and has made a series of personal appearances in England. Dylan's music has dropped most of its original overtones of the wandering troubadour. His beat is sharper and heavier and the words are more complex." This was the state of "rock journalism" back then.

Somehow we made it to the hall. Immediately I was thrown into the freakiest crowd I'd ever encountered, although "freaky" was not yet in the lingo. Most seemed to be from the University of Buffalo, at the time one of the most politically active campuses in the East. Numerous kids had long bushy hair, like Dylan, far scruffier and wilder looking than the British invasion band members. Many girls had devilishly long, straight hair. Some wore political buttons. A few antiwar protesters shouted slogans outside. It was exciting and, for me, exotic.

I still have a stub so I know that my girlfriend and I were in row J of the left-center balcony. Dylan came out alone, with just a stool next to him. It held a change of harmonica, a glass of water and, evidently, some pills that he dipped into from time to time. He'd already been associated with "drugs," whatever that meant, and I wondered if he was popping illegal substances or just fighting a cold.

The first set was all one could have wished, although I can't say for sure which songs he played, except that it was weighted toward the newer non-electric ones such as "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Mr. Tambourine Man. " I specifically remember that he played "Desolation Row," which I loved and which went on forever—not a bad thing in this case. Okay, no controversy so far.

After intermission, spent largely staring at the odd menagerie of counter-culture precursors, I settled back in my seat, nervous, no doubt, about the coming reaction. And a large part of the crowd, it turned out, had brought their "A" game. A band came out with Bob—actually The Band, as it turned out, although they were then known as The Hawks—and immediately started playing "fucking loud," as Dylan famously ordered them when heckled in Great Britain on the same tour.

No idea what the first tune was, but I do know what happened between songs: heckling, pointed cries of "We want Dylan" (the folk one, that is) and "Put down the guitar!"—and the ringing of a cow bell somewhere down the balcony!

Dylan plunged ahead, with more noisy protest, and the cowbell, after the song's final note. And so it went, although I recall that the cowbell slackened after awhile. Beyond "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," I can't say for certainty what they played. Since I'd never been to a rock show before, I had no idea what other bands sounded like live, if the sound system was always this crappy, if performers rarely or always spoke to the audience, and how much of an encore, if any, could one expect.

But I had to start somewhere, and this was it.

Several months later, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and then stopped touring—after his famous motorcycle accident, which some still suggest was faked to give him an excuse to give up the rigors, and controversy, of the road. In any case: no more ring-them-cowbells for Bob ever again. It may be only mildly surprising that I still attend the occasional rock show so many years later, but it's astounding that Bob is still on the road, playing dozens if not hundreds of dates a year—still a wheel on fire, rolling down the road.

A new edition of Greg Mitchell's award-winning book, The Campaign of the Century, on the birth of media politics has just been publiished.
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