Everyone knows what happened thirty-seven years ago when Bob Dylan fronted an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival, which is why August 3 saw 100 scribes from all over the country merging into a crowd of 10,000, inching by vehicle and foot through the narrow, tourist-choked streets of the former center of the triangle slave trade, now known for its wealthy “cottages,” while others rode water ferries from the sailboats and powerboats anchored like ducklings around a mammoth cruise ship, sandwiched by the graceful suspension bridge connecting Newport to the mainland and Fort Adams. The pentagonal sandstone bastion with the recessed barred windows, built to protect Narragansett Bay in the nineteenth century, backed the big stage. At 5:30 pm, to a standing and expectant sea of sun-soaked bodies who’d been hearing Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Rodeo” pumped over the PA, half an hour late but right on time, the short guy in the silver shirt and black suit with the fake beard and wig topped by a tall white Stetson bounded onstage with his four black-clad bandmates. A punchy acoustic string-band version of an old folk blues called “Roving Gambler” got started. At 61, Dylan had returned to the scene of the crime.
Or maybe he hadn’t, and not just because of Heraclitus, with whom Dylan would surely agree about feet and the same river twice. For the assembled multitude who had come to the fabled rock where the prophet had stood and been dishonored, it was, as it should have been, an Event; they made the biggest one-day crowd the festival’s had in years. For the enigmatic bard himself, his Cassandra streak and razor wit evident again after years of trying to banish or submerge them, his restless decades-long quest for something to believe in, in an implacable universe, transformed by his art into an uneven but awesome legacy crucial to American popular culture (forty-plus albums, 500-plus songs, 200 days a year of roadburn), back in Newport and gunning his rapid-fire way through the two-hour set of revamped classics and breaking out into a periodic smile like Mona Lisa with the highway blues, it’s impossible to say. Is the shaman onstage for the umpteenth time more or less likely than we are to know or care what this specific moment is supposed to mean? Is it just another turn in the maze he runs outside the gates of Eden, looking for love, jubilation, transcendence, apocalypse, hope, death–an answer, an exit? How can you tell the dancer from the dance?
I’m only really myself when I’m onstage, Dylan has said.
As listeners snaked through the dozens of vendors’ stands and past the stages, they brushed against everything from traditional hill tunes to country and rock and the confessional singer-songwriter mode that is now, after Dylan, usually thought of as folk music. One early act on the main stage rammed home a Led Zeppelin cover. It’s far from the hallowed tale of 1965, where Dylan led musicians from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Blues Project, two early improvising rock groups, into a blistering version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that drew such furious booing they soon split the stage.
Myth can be more fun and sharper-sighted than history, and even, as Dylan the mythmaker knows, truer. Over the years, variant accounts of 1965 Newport have surfaced. The standard version ultimately comes from Pete Seeger, the keeper of the flame, who incessantly toured college campuses throughout the dark 1950s with the gospel of folk music learned from his father and Woody Guthrie, seeing it as the most valid expression of a truly popular culture: According to that take, the booing was loud, spontaneous and universal, as folk fans rejected Dylan’s contemptuous noise, demanded a return to the authentic, socially aware sounds he’d made his folkie bones with, songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But others have suggested that the booing came largely from backstage, from Seeger and his cohorts, shocked by what they saw as treason–or from fans complaining about the crummy sound system–or that there was no booing at all. Still others noted that Dylan had used electric instruments on his records; that on 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan he abandoned overt political protest for Brechtian parables about tortured love and striated life, thus bolting from the mission Seeger saw as central to contemporary folk music; that “Like a Rolling Stone” was hitting the charts across America and AM radio was bending its sacred three-minute limit to air it; that you would have to have been deaf indeed to have been shocked by what Dylan was up to at Newport.
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Whatever. After three electric and three acoustic tunes, he quit.
Fort Adams is actually several miles from Freebody Park, where the Newport Folk Festival was originally held when George Wein–who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, and his then-partner Albert Grossman, who later managed the biggest names of 1960s rock, including Dylan–started it in 1959. It died after two years. In 1962 Wein hooked up with Pete Seeger and Theo Bikel, and by 1965 the fest drew 71,000 people and sported a sixty-four-page program with forty ads. Folk music, the major record companies had realized, was big business. Still, each artist was paid a democratic $50 per day; profits funded the Newport Folk Foundation’s promulgating of folk music and musicians. This is the model Wein’s Festival Productions still follows for the immensely popular New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as does Seeger, whose wonderful annual Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival Festival at Croton Point Park has floated the sloop and its miraculous river cleanup for thirty-eight years.
After 1965, Wein tried to realign the Newport Folk Festival with the erupting forces of the post-Dylan world via acts like Buffalo Springfield, but in 1971 it closed and wasn’t revived for fifteen years. Even as Dylan walked off the Newport stage in 1965, he was reaching the first pinnacle of his forty-year career and had already transformed American popular culture. So many roads led to him and so many emerged from him that his main rivals as transformative agents in popular American music may be Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Elvis–and like all of them, he drew recurrent abuse or boredom from fans who saw him as betraying his talent, abandoning the purity of his early days. But for Dylan, purity is a pointless abstraction; like St. Paul, he believes virtue is manifest only in being tested. “To live outside the law,” warns one of his most famous ruthless lines, “you must be honest.”
Dylan incarnates the Great American Songbook, its worst as well as its best. Another Woody Guthrie manqué when he hit New York, he grew up on Buddy Holly and Little Richard. During the early 1960s he absorbed the totemic Anthology of American Folk Music, the last generations of true folk musicians, the folk revivalists who flocked to Greenwich Village and Cambridge to Travis-pick guitars behind traditional ballads and Guthrie tunes and whatever else they’d picked up. He was a deadly mimic, and learned to phrase inimitably from blues and soul, though his voice was often ridiculed; his guitar skills, like Guthrie’s, varied from painfully rudimentary to quite accomplished. His creative outbursts, the nonstop writing, tumbled all he heard and read and did into his increasingly high-torqued personalized songs; tapped by the shades of Blake and Rimbaud, he’d become a seer or shaman, a seismic artist who quavered to the time’s deep rhythmic structures whether he willed it or not.
The Beatles and Stones survived past the British Invasion largely because they jumped on Dylan’s millennial bandwagon, adapting his Jeremiah’s cry, his truthteller’s story forms, his sly ironies and probing sarcasm and haunted, paradoxical loves; his far-reaching grasp of forms, his impossible phrasing, his poet’s fecund sense of language in play for its beauties and possibilities. In the process, they morphed from talented cover bands of American roots music and r&b who wrote pop ditties and novelty tunes into singer-songwriters on Dylan’s model, storytellers who strove to paint personal and social pictures that Tin Pan Alley couldn’t. This self-contained model of artistry became the industry standard, aside from prefab acts. It happened almost immediately: No sooner was Dylan Dylan than the search was on for the Next Dylan, the New Dylan–a list that over the decades accumulated dozens, like Donovan, Paul Simon, Arlo Guthrie, Springsteen, even Dylan’s son Jakob. If the British Invasion upended the complacent American record industry by demonstrating that “the kids” wanted something else and would pay big bucks for it, Dylan altered the fundamental nature of what “the kids” wanted. He had realized Woody Guthrie’s dream–a true popular art.
It’s a big stone to carry, but it’s Dylan’s–and in the roller-coaster course of claiming it this guarded, caustic person has left a trail of human and other wreckage. Still, he earned it with the three classic albums of his amphetamine-surreal-Beat period, the multifaceted Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. When he used his 1966 motorcycle accident as cover to withdraw from the circus his public and private life had become–although John Wesley Harding was released at the end of this period–he moved into Big Pink with The Band and explored the textures of old songs and his own unreleased tunes, in the process tutoring Robbie Robertson in how to write. Nashville Skyline, his 1969 silence-breaker, disappointed most fans–the newly lightened voice, the genially mild love songs, recalled why critics have always found Milton’s Satan more fascinating than his God.
Like most, I was bored, then lost touch with the 1970s and 1980s Dylan, who’d dulled his edge and his vehement sense of humor, it seemed; a dedicated family man engaged in legal battles with Grossman, whom he accused of ripping him off, embracing religions, evading stalkers, he slid into irrelevance as his records grew thin, boring, annoying. There were musical spots of light: New Morning demonstrated continuing growth, with the tender waltz “Winterlude,” the soul recitative with scat backing “If Dogs Run Free.” But most of the albums over twenty years, with the exception of 1975’s highly regarded Blood on the Tracks, lacked durable material, as Dylan drifted through drug abuse, exploding relationships, financial crashes, religious fevers, public self-destruction at the Live Aid concert and a host of problems that culminated in the late 1980s, when he floated a desperate offer to join the Grateful Dead. Dylan worshipers, the band gently sidestepped the issue, but one upshot was 1988’s Dylan & The Dead, a reasonable album that marked the onset of his turnaround. Always improvisational onstage and in the studio, he started to choose his bandmates and shape his sets with more care, maintaining the loose, sloppy jam feel (which grew whenever he played lead guitar); his bands got polished to a roadhouse sheen. He’d become the touring troubadour he’d imagined himself as a kid.
By 1995’s MTV Unplugged, Dylan was resurrected, though hardly the same. He stopped tossing his old tunes off almost contemptuously; they were persistently rearranged, reinterpreted, in jazz’s (and 1960s rock’s) restless fashion, far from the freeze-dried recording reproductions that dominate pop concerts. (At the time his classic material was being reissued almost nonstop, via the industry’s rapid recycling of inventory onto the new CD format.) This remains his concert mode.
His near-death experience in 1997 from a heart infection grabbed him headlines and refocused and energized him. Time Out of Mind, from that same year, was rightly hailed as his best effort since Blood on the Tracks. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Time‘s rootsy sounds drew from Delta and Chicago blues, rockabilly and ballads; its lyrics had bite and power, re-established his wit and humor about loss and hope and entropy and pain and faith and, of course, death in a hostile and indifferent world–topics for grown-up rockers. Songs with titles like “Not Dark Yet” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” were delivered in a weary, scuffed-leather croak whose phrasing danced with rhythmic subtleties he’d learned from jazz and blues. One jazz musician told me, “I love to watch people try to sing along with him. He never does what they expect with the melody. The closest thing to what he does with his voice is Sonny Rollins’s sax.”
The album’s epic tune, “Highlands,” epitomizes the subtle smarts of Dylan Reborn. He never repeats his delivery; neither does the band, which mingles Pops Staples with Delta blues, mutating its licks almost subliminally for every single verse of the fifteen-minute track. Meantime, Lanois’s patented mix, deep with tremolo, gently rotates the instruments through a roughly spherical soundstage, creating an unconscious complicity with the lyrics–which ultimately, after some very funny verses (including a vintage-Dylan shaggy dog story about a waitress who wants him to sketch her), are about going into that good night.
Then again, Dylan was always the grown-up at the party in the 1960s, disdaining airy talk of love and change. He was the closest thing to a real bluesman born of that time. I remember what Al Kooper, who played organ on Highway 61 Revisited and at Newport in 1965, once told me. Producer Tom Wilson, the only black staff producer at Columbia, owned an indie jazz label before producing records by the Animals, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and the Velvet Underground. Wilson said of Dylan, “Put him with an electric band, and you’ll have a white Ray Charles who’s a poet.”
That neatly describes both Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft. On the latter, Dylan overtly embraces jazz, especially of the between-the-wars swing era, when blues and jazz and early r&b all blended in the likes of Armstrong and Nat King Cole: “Bye and Bye” finds his croak skipping blithely, limberly, through sardonically high-stepping swing, recalling nothing more than Armstrong’s vocals without the heft, somewhere near Billie Holiday’s late singing–and then hits lines like, “If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again/You do so at the peril of your own life,” where “life” gracefully, hilariously trails down an octave. “Moonlight” is a suave torch song–Dylan as Astaire–tinged with threat. And there’s heavy-duty Chicago blues, rockabilly and rockers to fill the album out.
So maybe it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in early September, Dylan headlines the Aspen Jazz Festival, with Willie Nelson.
Which brings us back to Newport. “The Times They Are A-Changin'” followed “Roving Gambler” with Dylan’s loose-limbed phrasing framed by mandolin licks, his sliding slurs on the title line ironically accenting world-weariness rather than battle cries. “Desolation Row” too became less acerbic, less surreal, as if reality had caught up to Dylan’s Boschian vision; he punctuated verses with a one-note lick à la Neil Young. “Mama You Been on My Mind” had a bluegrass, Dead-inflected feel; the Dead echoed again through the first encore, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” “Positively 4th Street” shifted to a Percy Sledge-style plea–a delicious twist to this slashing counterattack on the late folksinger Phil Ochs, who at first put down Dylan’s apostasy, then ended his days dreaming of Elvis. “Highway 61 Revisited” swelled with punk-tipped rage. The crowd, on its feet since Copland wafted from the PA, was moving to the music, its energies harnessed, the musicians onstage knowing they were doing their jobs.
And so it went: The tight, incredibly versatile and rapid-fire quintet–guitarist Charlie Sexton, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Ricelli–worked with roadhouse precision and timing, switching between acoustic and electric instruments like race-car pit crews, dispensing (as usual with Dylan) with frills like talking to the audience, just finding the zone and feeding the beast. “Summer Days” revved up pedal-to-the-metal rockabilly. “North Country Fair” had a back-porch feel that sat the crowd down, then “Tangled Up in Blue” snarled and brought them back up. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” dazzling with phrases that skimmed like stones across a rippling lake, offered more modest, but maybe more real, affirmation than it seemed to in 1965. Here I am, the revitalized chameleon seemed to say, and we are now history–and thus open endlessly to reinterpretation. And then came “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” ironically soothing, its lyrics a curse riding shining pedal steel licks like those of The Byrds’ country-rock version.
They cranked into “The Wicked Messenger,” which waxed fierce, a jeremiad blues; “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat” flared with sarcasm. The encores included a powerful “Like a Rolling Stone.” During “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a gull hung improbably motionless over the American flag atop the bastion while Dylan trilled, “How many seas must a white dove sail?” Then it dipped into the wind and wheeled off, and a few moments later the amazing band blasted out “All Along the Watchtower” in Jimi Hendrix mode, the jutting fortress walls their backdrop.
By the first encore the crowd had started to dribble out, but thousands remained: parents dancing with their smaller kids on their shoulders, next to their teens; Gen Xers wearing Born to Run and Woody Guthrie T-shirts, moving to the throbbing pulses and mouthing the words while Dylan’s voice cut like a dolphin through the slippery beats and the sun sank through the glowering haze toward the lip of the mainland. And as I headed to the parking lot to inch oh-so-slowly out of Newport, I remembered how I used to carve Dylan lyrics onto desks in high school. Good thing I never got caught.