If the Royal Society For The Prevention Of Purism ever decided to do a radio advert, they might like to use this CD....
IF THE ROYAL SOCIETY FOR THE Prevention Of Purism ever decided to do a radio advert, they might like to use this CD. Because the reward for the folkies shouting ‘Judas’ and slow-handclapping, is to hear history laughing at them for the rest of eternity. Meanwhile, history will also confirm that this famous bootleg is one of the most extraordinary live recordings ever (belatedly) committed to CD.
We join Bob in Manchester in May 1966 on his first British tour since going electric. The audience is still peppered with the folk devotees who liked him before “the little girls got into him” (circa [I]NME[/I] [I]Angst [/I]letters from the time).
No worries with the first half of this performance, then. If anything, in fact, the acoustic stuff feels more powerful than the electric because of the stripped-down resonance of the songs. His voice is almost a croon, instead of sounding like the cat in a cement mixer we’ve come to expect. He sings the lyrics like he’s really emoting, like he’s got something urgent to communicate, in contrast to today’s uninterested caricature. ‘Just Like A Woman’ is almost like a lullaby, melancholy and yearning. The harmonica on ‘Visions Of Johanna’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’ is beautiful, sensual and visceral, stabbing and stroking at the notes and wringing every ounce of feeling from the little bastard. And all the while, you can almost hear the breathtaken reverence in the crowd, agog at the genius in their midst.
Genius is a transient, elusive mistress, Jimmy, but it’s partly characterised by a hunger to answer your own creative questions, chase your own demons, scratch that eternal fucking itch. Maybe Dylan, like The Beatles, had it when he was prepared to lead the crowd like people wanted him to, until he abdicated that responsibility after his mythical bike accident. Either way, here Dylan is at the peak of his powers – angry, urgent, raw, searingly intelligent, satirical and tender at turns. You picture the classic Afro’d icon in shades from [I]Don’t Look Back[/I], and this performance captures the essence of that era as he effortlessly, arrogantly, peerlessly turned into a rock’n’roll star.
It must have been pretty bizarre to hear this peak-capped folkie suddenly put his shades on and rock out. You thought he was a puritanical, whining moralist troubadour, then suddenly he reveals he owns a penis. It’s like finding out your cute little 13-year-old nephew is having sex. No wonder people were offended.
The slow handclap sounds uncannily like a student demonstration demanding recycled tofu rolls in the Rosa Klebb Cafi. And so it’s all the more amusing that his tone when addressing the audience is all sardonic, mock-cute humility. Evidently stoned to the point of blissful ambivalence, as the slow handclaps continue, with impeccable timing and comic subtlety he pleads, “I just wish you wouldn’t clap so hard.”
Then finally, famously, to the ‘Judas’ taunts he retorts, “I don’t believe you… you’re a liar.” Touchi.
Ultimately, though, the performance is its own justification. ‘I Don’t Believe You’ becomes a rollicking groove courtesy of that guitar hook, while ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ wouldn’t sound like anything special without the organ and piano lending it that mock portent. It seems so obvious in hindsight. The climax, though, is the version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – inspirational, triumphant, epic and majestic. It’s like he’s asking his audience the question, ‘How does it feel…?’ And they can’t deny he’s answered every doubt.
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If you ever wondered why people deify Dylan, this is the main source of the myth. Because this isn’t just folk music, rock music or protest music. It’s sweet, sour and sublime soul music. And that’s as pure and simple a generic definition as anyone should ever need.