A folk hero amps the rise of rock

The story be­hind Bob Dy­lan’s stun­ning elec­tric-guitar de­but in 1965, a defin­ing mo­ment in mu­si­cal history

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY DAVID KIRBY book­world@wash­post.com

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 1965New­port 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.

ThatNew­port fes­ti­valau­di­ence­con­tainedso many war­ring al­le­giance­sanda­gen­das 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-and­white as the pop­u­lar one, all the more res­o­nant for be­ing re­counted here by one of the best mu­sic jour­nal­ists around. Eli­jahWald is the au­thor of a dozen ear­lier books on sub­jects in­clud­ing the blues, rap, the Bea­tles and the nar­co­cor­rido, thatMex­i­can 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 with­Dy­lan only once, and that had not gone well.

Then the first song is done, and as Wald notes, “with the last notes of‘Mag­gie’sFarm,’ 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, evenif they­don’tseem­to­knowit yet. You’ll find thosede­tail­sand­mor­ein this splen­did­book. 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.” You can find all TheWash­ing­ton Post’s book cov­er­age at wash­ing­ton­post.com/books.


Bob Dy­lan, shown here in a 1966 photo, plugged in a Stra­to­caster and ce­mented the shift from folk to rock, says Eli­jahWald in “Dy­lan Goes Elec­tric!”

DY­LAN GOES ELEC­TRIC! New­port, Seeger, Dy­lan, and the Night That Split the Six­ties by Eli­jah Wald Dey St. 354 pp. $26.99

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