Play It Like An Artist
Bob Dylan abruptly leaves the familiar orbit where he is widely celebrated and launches into a turbulent zone where none has gone before. Two years after this appearance at Newport, he returned with a rock band and blew down the walls. It was not well received.
When Dylan went electric in concert July 25, 1965, it’s not like people weren’t warned. His album Bringing It All Back Home, released earlier that year, opened with an electric side one and acoustic side two. That was unsettling to his fan base, but what he brought on stage, at Newport and in the rest of his touring that year, was in your face big time.
Bob Dylan and his band at Newport got a decidedly mixed, not to say largely unfriendly reception. Then a couple of them and a couple of the Hawks did a few gigs on the road with Dylan and got more of the same. Organist Al Kooper dropped out from fear for their personal safety. Later drummer Levon Helm would do the same, worn out by the anger. The relentless booing they received in concert was exhausting but Dylan, though increasingly unhappy, was not deterred in what he played.
He sang what he wanted in the way he wanted and he didn’t apologize if you didn’t like it. He was inventing folk-rock, but he made it sound like punk. It was edgy for so many reasons and it was being made far beyond the reach of most of the audience that wanted the familiar.
Folk music was concerned with tradition, authenticity, a demonstrable rejection of commercialism. When Dylan took the golden ring he’d been given by that audience and plugged it into an amplifier, they were insulted. Outraged. Violated. Purity had been undone. Rock was beneath them. But his wasn’t art for puritans.
His wasn’t art for anyone in particular. Like all true artists, he made it for himself. If you wanted it, though, he had a lot to offer. His vision pushed popular and parochial modes of music to a place where every type and genre was made available and made remarkable. Over the next several years in his work with The Hawks, soon to become The Band, he would explore and exalt an entire range of American music as the true musicologist he is.
So there was Newport and then the part of ’65 touring with a patchwork band, then there was the tour with The Hawks of the U.S. and Canada, everywhere the audiences booing, and the U.K. on into 1966 without Levon, and the vicious British audiences buying tickets just so they could scream “Judas” before walking out en masse. Every time the acoustic guitar vanished and the electric one appeared, the purists were there to call him to account. Through it all, Dylan played on.
Then there was June back home in Woodstock, a motorcycle accident, and a note from the doctor saying he doesn’t have to go back out on tour if he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t and won’t again for nearly eight years. He continues to make music and release albums, but he refuses to promote them.
He has other things in mind. For the rest of the year and all of 1967, he and the band, Robbie, Levon, Rick, Garth, Richard, make the Basement Tapes. It is a watershed moment in American music.
“What if we only play music that has no chance of ever being released?” That’s what Dylan asked them and that’s what they did together. Brilliantly! Listen to them now in any of the many dozens of different albums that were produced, nearly all of them bootleg copies and, in fact, the very genesis of the bootleg industry, but never mind, just listen!
You will hear pure Americana. A little Hoagy Carmichael, some Bob Wills, Fred McDowell, Lord Buckley, Jelly Roll Morton, a touch of Frank, Bing, Count, Peggy Lee and Brenda Lee, Hank Williams, Ink Spots, Staples Singers, an entire panoply of American music, everything except bop, which they left to all the disciples of Charlie Parker.
Those songs wouldn’t see the official light of day until Columbia released The Basement Tapes in 1975. By then, Dylan was touring again with The Band, a force in music unto themselves and together with Dylan mighty strong performers of his work and theirs.
In the meanwhile, having succeeded at folk music then largely abandoned it, having created a new form of rock music that would become the standard to this day, and having recorded it in three successive albums that still are classics, he wandered off into country-tinged work and ballads like the song and dance man he always claimed to be. John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning, those last two in 1970.
That made eleven albums he’d recorded in barely eight years, each of them more stunning than the last, if for completely different reasons, and each of them exemplary of his true art. By 1975, he’d add six more, including the Basement Tapes, the rustic Planet Waves, and the classic Blood on the Tracks.
Through it all, people continued to talk about his work in commercial terms, how far up the charts this or that one made it, or failed to make it. That wasn’t the measure of what he was doing. His influence on the music business and the musicians that made it can’t be overstated, regardless of where his work was in the charts. He changed the art forever. His stature among his colleagues in the business is revered – there’s no better word for it.
While the public struggled for a long time to catch up to what Dylan was doing, musicians and other artists everywhere got it. He was opening up new worlds with his music, and all of us sooner or later were the beneficiaries. The only thing you could count on from one song, one album, one concert to the next is that he would play it like an artist.
Bob Dylan has released 46 albums, published some 600 songs, more than 300 of which have been covered by more than 600 different musicians in 1500 different versions HERE. He has changed the language of song and placed many dozens of phrases within the popular vernacular. In 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a full three years before his first and only Number One record. Currently, he plays on.